Friday, May 26, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Speight rejects chiefs’ plan
Council favours interim govt, pardon for gunmen

SUVA, May 25 (Reuters) — Fijian coup leader George Speight has rejected a proposal by the country’s traditional chiefs to pardon him for taking the Prime Minister hostage and to install a new government, a spokesman said today.

“We really don’t like the proposals,’’ Speight spokesman Peveli Rinakama told reporters inside the parliamentary compound where the coup leader has been holding ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry captive since Friday.

“Three-quarters of it we don’t like,” Mr Rinakama said of the plan. “The constitution has to change and also we have to change the President (Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara)”.

The plan put forward by the chiefs has shocked diplomats as effectively condoning Mr Speight’s actions in seeking to seize power in the name of ethnic Fijians.

Asked if Mr Speight would release his hostages, who include the daughter of president Mara, Rinakama said: “No, not today.”

The traditional chiefs had today urged the President to replace his democratically elected Prime Minister and pardon gunmen who have held the Prime Minister and several MPs hostage for nearly a week.

Mr Sitiveni Rabuka, chairman of the island’s Great Council of Chiefs, said it had recommended a council of advisers be appointed to run an interim government.

“It’s bad for Fiji, one way or the other,” he told a news conference. “What we have done this time is to assess which is the least damaging of the bad cases.”

Failed Fijian businessman George Speight, who led the attempted coup in the Pacific island, had yet to accept the deal, Mr Rabuka said.

Mr Rabuka, who himself led two coups in 1987, said the chiefs proposed that President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara head the Council of Advisers, which could include those involved in the coup bid.

He said the chiefs also urged Mr Mara “to pardon all those who took part in the action against the Parliament and the kidnapping of the government”.

The chiefs, who ended a three-day meeting today, called for the immediate release of all hostages held in the Parliament building and the surrender of all firearms to the police.

Mr Rabuka said he had hoped the hostages would have been released “earlier this afternoon, before sundown”.

“As I pointed out to the Great Council of chiefs, it is better for them to be released in daylight,” he said. “There would be a lot of confusion at night and accidents can happen.”

Mr Speight led the gunmen into Parliament on Friday, taking ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and several MPs hostage and claiming power in the name of indigenous Fijians.

The chiefs, who represent indigenous Fijians, reprimanded Mr Speight and asked him to submit to Mr Mara’s rule, but he refused, prompting them to come up with today’s plan.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff earlier called the proposal “worrying”, warning it could spark Fiji’s removal from the 54-nation Commonwealth group of mostly ex-British colonies.

“That would be utterly unacceptable to New Zealand and most other democratic countries,” Mr Goff told Parliament.

Independent website reported that the chiefs had sent a delegation to Fiji’s sprawling thatch-roofed Parliament complex to talk to Mr Speight.

“Mr Mara is expected to appoint an interim PM tomorrow, following the release of the hostages at Parliament and the resignation of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry,” it said.

The website, run by local journalists, said it was unclear if Mr Speight would accept the decision and that much depended on who was proposed as the new Prime Minister.

The resignation of Mr Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, would be sought on his release, it added.

Mr Mara is thought to have briefed UN and Commonwealth envoys on the chiefs’ decision, the website said.

“Both envoys are believed to have expressed surprise at the move, especially if Mr Chaudhry is not involved as seems likely,” it added.

The Commonwealth and UN envoys visited the captives on Wednesday and urged Mr Speight to free Mr Chaudhry and an estimated 35 other hostages unconditionally, but were refused.

Racial tension has mounted in Fiji since Mr Chaudhry took power a year ago with indigenous Fijians resentful of the success of Indians who make up 44 per cent of the 800,000 population.

State-owned Fiji television said an interim government would serve for three years before a national election was held.

Mr Goff said a new government favouring indigenous Fijians would run counter to the Commonwealth’s 1991 Harare Declaration that commits member countries to ensuring equal rights for all their citizens regardless of gender, race, creed or political belief.

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