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Fiji Rebel Supporters Take Hostages

July 27, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Rebel supporters took two New Zealand pilots hostage Thursday after the military said that arrested coup leader George Speight may face a treason charge.

The military arrested Speight on Wednesday, and early Thursday troops stormed a stronghold of 350 of his followers in the capital, Suva. One man was killed and 39 wounded, army Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini said.

Hundreds were arrested in what Tarakinikini said was the start of a crackdown that would end the insurgency on the Pacific island nation.

``We are going to the root of the matter, we are arresting the people who orchestrated the whole campaign of civil unrest in this country,″ Tarakinikini told reporters.

He said Speight was arrested for threatening the life of Fiji’s new president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, and refusing to hand in all weapons stolen from the army for his coup.

Threatening Iloilo’s life, Tarakinikini said, ``can be seen as an act of treason,″ and Speight could face a treason charge after a full police investigation.

Supporters of Speight _ a self-proclaimed champion of the indigenous Fijian majority against the ethnic Indian minority _ struck back, taking hostages.

The New Zealand civilian pilots were seized when the plane they were flying for Air Fiji landed on the northern island of Vanua Levu, the military said. It reported no ransom demands.

Speight’s supporters took up to 50 hostages in a town on Vanua Levu, but released them after the military warned it would act, a military spokesman said.

The Australian government renewed warnings to its residents to leave Fiji because of fears of ``lawlessness and civil unrest.″

An Air New Zealand international flight from Auckland slated to land at Fiji’s Nadi airport Thursday overflew island nation ``because of the current political situation″ and headed directly to Los Angeles, the airline said.

Fiji’s turmoil began when Speight and an armed gang stormed Parliament on May 19, took dozens of lawmakers hostage and demanded the rights of indigenous Fijians be made supreme.

His demands were met after a two-month standoff. Speight then released his hostages and demanded that the new government be stacked with his supporters.

Foreign diplomats said that on Friday, Iloilo was likely to announce the appointment of banker Laisenia Qarase as Fiji’s prime minister.

Qarase, now the caretaker premier, said Thursday he had ``no animosity″ toward ethnic Indians but would pursue a blueprint that would ``ensure the survival″ of indigenous Fijians.

Qarase said ``aggressive″ foreign critics such as Australia and New Zealand should leave Fiji to solve its own problems.

Speight claims ethnic Indians, who make up 44 percent of Fiji’s population, have too much power and are threatening Fijian culture. The Indians were first brought to Fiji in the 1870s by British colonialists as indentured laborers.

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