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Fiji Reopens Talks With Rebels

June 14, 2000

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Fiji’s military rulers said they reopened negotiations Wednesday with the rebel leader holding 31 hostages, despite his rejection of their plan to name a new civilian administration by the end of the week.

Military spokesman Col. Filipo Tarakinikini said talks with rebel leader George Speight were ``back on track″ after being frozen for more than a week. He refused to give details.

Tarakinikini did indicate, however, that the military may have shifted ground on one of Speight’s demands _ widening an amnesty to include supporters outside his core group.

Earlier Wednesday, Speight had demanded that Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s martial law regime allow the country’s influential tribal chiefs appoint a new president and decide on the makeup of an interim government. That would allow the chiefs to include Speight and his supporters in the Cabinet.

But Bainimarama has repeatedly ruled that out. On Tuesday, the military commander said he would appoint the new government within days, and that Speight and his supporters would not be part of it.

``Commander Bainimarama should think very carefully before making public announcements about the interim civilian administration,″ Speight said, ``because his view that none of us should participate is contrary to what the chiefs have already decided and want.″

Speight and his rebels have been holding 31 hostages, including deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, since May 19 in Fiji’s parliamentary compound.

Late Wednesday, the army warned people against driving close to parliament after three cars were hijacked by a mob believed to be Speight supporters. One driver was hospitalized.

Speight claims to be acting on behalf of Fiji’s indigenous majority in his fight for a new government that denies the ethnic Indian minority political power. Chaudhry was Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister.

Bainimarama imposed martial law on May 29 after a mob from parliament rampaged through the capital, Suva, killing a policeman and trashing a television station.

Speight issued new demands Wednesday, including that all his supporters be granted amnesty from the storming of parliament 27 days ago to the day the hostages are released.

Bainimarama has offered Speight and six supporters amnesty if they surrender their weapons and release the hostages, but insists that all other criminal acts will be investigated.

Tarakinikini said the amnesty offer now applies to all those within parliament, but does not include crimes committed outside the grounds.

Fiji is a cluster of 320 islands in the South Pacific, 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

Also Wednesday, Speight and Fiji rugby authorities condemned a decision by the New Zealand Rugby Union to ban senior and under-21 Fijian teams from playing there.

``I think it is very short-sighted and very unfortunate,″ Speight said. ``I hope they reconsider it.″

Fiji Rugby Football Union head Bob Challenor accused New Zealand of having a double standard, saying it did not apply the same sanctions to Pakistan after a coup last year.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has threatened to bar Fijian national teams, including the Olympic team for the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Sydney Games, from entering Australia.

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