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Fiji Crisis Nears Conclusion

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Fiji coup leader George Speight, who is holding the prime minister and about 30 others captive, said on Sunday he believed the crisis was close to resolution and the hostages could be freed in the next 48 hours.

Earlier Saturday, only hours after Fijian rebels started a gunfight with soldiers at a roadblock outside the parliament, Fijian President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara suspended the government.

But Mara said the announcement was not related to the shooting.

Fiji's president signaled Saturday that he was accepting two main demands of rebels holding the prime minister and about 30 others hostage: a new government and immunity from prosecution.

Mara said he has fired the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who has been held captive by an armed gang for 10 days inside the parliament compound.

Mara, a figurehead who normally holds little government power, said he would appoint a caretaker administration by Monday, and would continue to rule the Pacific nation until then through state-of-emergency powers.

The president also said it was "highly likely" that Speight and the six gunmen who stormed parliament on May 19 would be granted immunity from prosecution for their roles in the coup attempt.

But Mara did not accept the rebels' third demand that he resign as president.

Speight did not immediately respond to Mara's actions.

Mara acknowledged it would look like he was caving in, but said that he had no choice and that his plan was the last hope for a "constitutionally viable route" to end the crisis.

However, Mara admitted that if the plan is accepted, Fiji would become an international pariah. Main trading partner Australia as well as New Zealand, the United States and the United Nations have condemned any deal that replaces the elected government as giving in to terrorism.

The foreign nations have threatened to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions. Mara warned that Fiji's main industries of sugarcane growing and tourism would collapse under sanctions. "We are going to face not only purgatory, but hell," Mara said.

Chaudhry, who was elected prime minister last year, is the country's first leader of Indian ancestry.

Speight claimed to be acting on behalf of the majority indigenous Fijians, and wants to reduce the powers that Indians can have in the government. He has declared himself prime minister and appointed his own cabinet.

The gun battle Saturday began after some 200 rebel supporters and at least three armed rebels left the parliament compound. On the way out, one said: "We're going to take down the roadblocks."
Confronting about eight soldiers at a roadblock 400 yards from the compound, the supporters tried to grab the soldiers' weapons and pushed one of them to the ground. The other soldiers fired warning shots. Rebels shot back, setting off a gun battle that lasted for less than five minutes.

The soldiers withdrew and were chased y the rebels and their supporters, who threw rocks and carried machetes. The mob eventually returned to parliament, marching, singing a song and carrying army tents they had pulled down.

Officials said one soldier was hit in the shoulder and the other in the leg. Jerry Harmer, 38, of Britain, a senior producer and cameraman for Associated Press Television News, was shot in the right wrist. Doctors at Suva's Colonial War Memorial hospital said his condition was good.

Speight did not appear to be involved in the confrontation.

Army commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama said his soldiers could not stop the armed rebels because they were using unarmed supporters as human shields.

Fiji, which had two bloodless coups in 1987, is an island nation in the Pacific 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. Fijians of Indian ancestry make up 44 percent of the population of 813,000, while indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent.

Ethnic Indians own many shops and businesses in Fiji. Some ethnic Indians have been attacked since Speight's coup began.

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