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Rebels Free Nine Hostages in Fiji

July 11, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Indigenous Fijian rebels freed nine of their 27 government captives Wednesday, moving this Pacific island nation closer to the end of a crisis that began almost two months ago when the rebels stormed Parliament.

The hostages were turned over to the Red Cross and then went to their homes, police and a Red Cross doctor said. They included all of the ethnic Indian parliamentarians except for the deposed prime minister and his son. The other remaining hostages are all ethnic Fijian legislators.

Bhagat Ram, the Red Cross doctor who saw the nine freed hostages, said all of them were unharmed.

``They looked happy to get out of that (Parliament) complex,″ Ram said. ``They conversed very well and they have gone to their homes.″

The release comes three days after the rebels, led by former businessman George Speight, signed an agreement with Fiji’s military government to end the hostage crisis. Under the agreement, Speight was supposed to release all his hostages Thursday.

It was unclear what the early release signified. Only a day earlier, attackers claiming to be rebel supporters had seized the posh beach resort where ``The Blue Lagoon″ was filmed _ the first attack on a foreign-owned facility.

Mary Aull, the wife of freed Parliamentarian Bill Aull, said his release was ``unbelievable.″

``It’s been a long time,″ she said. ``God was good.″

Mary Aull said her husband appeared to be unhurt, but he did not want to talk about his ordeal. ``We still have hostages inside,″ she said.

The crisis began May 19 when rebels led by Speight stormed Parliament and took several dozen hostages, including then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. The rebels are ethnic Fijians who say the nation’s large ethnic Indian minority has too much power. They demanded that the country’s multiracial constitution be scrapped and that Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, be deposed.

In the days after the seizure of the hostages, Speight supporters looted and burned ethnic Indian homes and businesses, and many Indians made plans to flee the country. The violence led Fiji’s military to take control and declare martial law.

On Sunday, after weeks of negotiations, military leaders and Speight reached the deal to free the hostages are supposed to be freed in exchange for the granting of many of Speight’s demands, including a new government and a new constitution curtailing Indian rights.

There has been speculation that Speight may end up with a Cabinet post, perhaps even the prime minister’s job. He told a news conference that such a move would be a perfect end for the coup.

But unrest has persisted despite the deal. Speight supporters have engaged in widespread civil disturbances across the nation, occupying police stations and blockading roads in an apparent effort to wring more concessions from the military regime.

On Tuesday, self-proclaimed rebel supporters seized the Turtle Island resort, the site of the 1949 filming of ``The Blue Lagoon″ and parts of the 1980 Brooke Shields remake.

The resort, owned by American Richard Evanson, boasts hand-crafted seaside cottages and coral-lined beaches at prices of up to $1,000 a night. Forty tourists were staying there when the attackers struck, foreign diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

The diplomats and newspaper reports said they included 20 children, 19 Australians and Evanson himself. All the guests were reported to be safe, and the attackers planned to let them leave Wednesday morning on a cruise ship anchored offshore, the diplomats said.

Those responsible for the takeover were believed to be from a tribe in the Yawawa islets off the northwest coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. They have been involved for years in a dispute over who owns Turtle Island.

Members of the group told reporters they support Speight. But they could be claiming rebel affiliation to take advantage of the amnesty being offered for political crimes related to the hostage crisis.

Indo-Fijians, whose ancestors were brought to the islands by English colonialists over a century ago to work in the rich sugar cane fields, make up 44 percent of the nation’s 812,000 people. Many of the indigenous Fijians who comprise 51 percent of the population resent their economic clout.

Fiji’s tourist industry has been devastated by the government crisis, with some of the hundreds of resort hotels scattered across dozens of islands reporting occupancy rates as low as 10 percent. However, around 1,000 Americans a week have been among tourists still coming into Fiji.

It was not known if any of the guests on Turtle Island were American.

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On the Net:

Turtle Island resort site: http://www.turtlefiji.com/

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