Saturday, May 20, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Fiji PM, Cabinet taken hostage
President declares emergency

SUVA, May 19 (Reuters, AP, AFP)—Fiji’s President today declared a state of emergency in the South Pacific nation after a businessman took the Prime Minister hostage and claimed power in the name of indigenous Fijians.

Coup leader George Speight and about seven armed men stormed Fiji’s Parliament earlier in the day. They fired at least two shots from automatic rifles before locking Fiji’s first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, Mr Mahendra Chaudhry, and his ministers in an upstairs chamber.

Some 14 hours after Speight and his companions seized the Cabinet it remained unclear how much support they had in their coup bid.

Speight told the website that the state of emergency declared by the President was null and void because it needed the "advice" of the Cabinet — and the Cabinet was locked up in Parliament.

He said the government was "under siege", so the President acted without any consultation as required under the Constitution.

"The President’s call is null and void," he said adding "until a new set of decrees are announced, there are no laws governing this country."

Speight said he did not know how long the "operation" would last but he asked civil servants to return to work on Monday.

He also said he did not expect overseas intervention." A rational politician or the head of state will adopt a smart stand of non-interference," he said.

The website reported Speight as saying: “Through these actions am asserting ownership, am asserting control and I am asserting executive power over Fiji. We have revoked the Constitution and have set that aside,” adding that the coup leaders had also revoked the powers of the President.

Speight appointed opposition lawmaker Ratu Timoci Silatolu as Interim Prime Minister.

It was not immediately clear how the ethnic Fijian-dominated army would react, but in a radio statement broadcast across the country Speight said the armed forces “are passive but remain at the beck and call and the control of the civilian government that is in place at this time that is headed by myself.”

He also said the Prime Minister and his supporters were safe in the parliament building.

Racial tension has mounted in Fiji between indigenous Fijians and Indians since Mr Chaudhry won power last may, with several anti-government demonstrations in recent months.

Indians make up 44 per cent of Fiji’s 800,000 population but are economically more powerful than indigenous Fijians and dominate key industries such as sugar farming.

The military, which backed a 1987 coup against an Indian-dominated government, stayed in barracks until it was deployed late in the day to help police maintain order.

Businesses here shut their doors as looting broke out in the Fijian capital, which attracts tens of thousands of tourists annually. Schools also closed. There were no reports of injuries.

“I am asking those people who are now destroying properties and looting Suva to stop and go home and stay home,” President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara said in a broadcast on Fijian radio.

“I am now declaring a state of emergency to maintain law and order”, the President said.

Meanwhile, looting and rioting in the capital following today’s coup subsided by early evening as police moved in to enforce a curfew, witnesses said today.

The police arrested at least 100 looters who had focused on Indian businesses. Looters “were targeting Indian businesses,” the witness said.

Local reporters said coup leader George Speight had announced his Cabinet line-up but four persons whose names were in the lists denied being involved in the coup.

This included former Foreign Minister Bernado Vunibobo.

The President, whose daughter Adi Koila Mara Nailatikau was reported to be among the politicians held hostage, also imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. local time (06.00 GMT) until 7 a.m. local time, a New Zealand government spokesperson said.

It was not immediately clear what powers he had under the state of emergency or how it would be enforced. A Fiji website reported that two battalions were deployed around major town centres to aid the police. Army reservists were asked to report for duty and to bring clothes and personal belongings “to last them at least 21 days”.

But there was no indication that soldiers were trying to end the hostage stand-off in parliament.

However, the website said the curfew did not appear to be having much effect so far with reports of youths setting fire to kiosks at Suva bus station despite the police roaming the street.

The website,, was the main source of news throughout the day on the coup attempt in the remote tropical island with all telephone lines apparently cut after the attack on parliament by the Speight’s gang, armed with ak-47 assault rifles.

The assault came around 10 a.m. (22.00 gmt yesterday) as around 5,000 people demonstrated against Mr Chaudhry on the first anniversary of his election.

Local media said opposition members of Parliament had been released and a group of 60-odd students and teachers observing Parliament were also quickly freed but Mr Chaudhry’s Cabinet members were held.

Speight, the son of an opposition politician, declared he was taking control “on behalf of every individual member of the indigenous Fijian community” and appointed an interim administration.

His father is a close friend of Sitiveni Rabuka, who headed two coups in 1987 to depose an Indian-dominated government and was the Prime Minister until exactly one year ago.

Mr Rabuka met Speight during the afternoon behind the locked doors of Parliament and was believed to be acting as a go-between for the coup leader and Mr Mara. He headed to the government house to meet the President

The hostages were reported to be unharmed.

“They have not been hurt, "Mr Chaudhry’s daughter Rani Sharma told Australian Associated Press from her home in Suva, where the Prime Minister’s family was anxiously waiting.

Political analysts were sceptical about how much influence was held by Speight, a businessman in the logging industry known to have had run-ins with the government over the past year.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said there was a rumour that two of the seven gunmen were army officers. “That obviously indicates there are some people in the military supporting this he said during a visit to Cambodia.

Mr Chaudhry’s Labour government has been under fire recently from Fijian nationalists for what they describe as pro-Indian policies.

Since the last year’s elections, there has been a groundswell of Fijian nationalist opposition to Mr Chaudhry. Criticism centres mainly on attempts by Mr Chaudhry to persuade Fijian landowners to renew expiring leases on farm land held by thousands of ethnic Indian tenants who are the core of his political support.


 India expresses concern
Tribune News Service

NEW DELHI, May 19 — India today expressed dismay and regret at the attempted coup d’ etat in Fiji and demanded immediate restoration of the legitimately elected government led by Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry.

In a swift reaction to the reported overthrow of the legally elected government in Fiji, a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs said:" We are disappointed that the democratic process in Fiji appears to have received a setback and we expect an immediate restoration of the legitimately elected government.”

The spokesman said all members of the Indian High Commission in Suva including the High Commissioner, Prof I.S. Chauhan were safe.

Expressing concern over the welfare and safety of Mr Chaudhry and his cabinet colleagues, the spokesman said: “We call upon Fiji and other members of the Commonwealth to uphold the principles” as enshrined in the Harare Declaration and the Millbrook Action Programme and act accordingly. As a member of the Commonwealth, Fiji is party to the Commonwealth declarations and principles. In the CHOGM communiqué of November 15, 1999, the Heads of Government “renewed their commitment to Commonwealth’s fundamental political values of democracy, human rights, rule of law, independence of the judiciary and good governance”, the spokesman said.

LONDON: British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook today condemned a coup attempt in Fiji and called for the immediate release of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.                                             

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