Fijian Chiefs Denounce Coup

Fiji gunman, George Speight
May 23, 2000 - The Great Council of Chiefs condemned the gunmen holding Fiji's prime minister and at least 20 other lawmakers hostage in parliament, but left the way open for some of the rebels' demands to be met Tuesday.

There was no immediate reaction from coup leader George Speight, on the meeting. But late Tuesday, he issued a statement which accused Mara of acting like a dictator. He said the way the chiefs deal with the uprising is a "test of their wisdom and their true relationship" with the people.

"Ratu Mara is deliberately using mass propaganda and lobbying to mislead the chiefs and the country on how the common man feels," said the statement. "We ask that he reverses his stand and step down before the situation escalates and becomes uncontrollable by any authority in Fiji."

The chiefs are also expected to discuss Wednesday, what form the future government should take and whether Speight and his gunmen should be offered immunity from prosecution.

The coup leader and six or seven other masked gunmen took the officials hostage Friday, and the number of armed captors later increased to about 60. Speight declared himself prime minister and installed an interim government.

Speight, who claims to have taken power on behalf of majority indigenous Fijians, wants to change the constitution so that only they can hold the posts of prime minister and president. Ethnic Indians make up about 44 percent of Fiji's population of 813,000, while indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent.

Speight, a failed businessman who said he is acting on behalf of indigenous Fijians, has threatened to shoot the ethnic Indian prime minister and other hostages if security forces attempt to retake parliament

Fiji's central bank strengthened capital controls on Monday after the crisis prompted local businesses to try to move money offshore, the Pacific news agency Pacnews said.

The central bank said Fiji's foreign exchange reserves were currently more than 800 million Fiji dollars, or US$388 million, and "sufficient to provide a substantial buffer in the event of any temporary pickup in capital outflows."

Meanwhile, in India's capital Tuesday, relatives of the detained Fijian prime minister urged the government to seek his early release. Ten relatives met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in New Delhi and suggested that he take up the matter with the United Nations and friendly countries.

"Vajpayee's response was quite positive," said Mukta Chaudhry, the Fijian leader's niece. There was no immediate comment by Vajpayee's office.

Speight has threatened to hurt the hostages if an armed rescue mission is mounted.

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