Tuesday, May 30, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Military takes over in Fiji
Declares martial law
Mara resigns

PACIFIC HARBOUR (Fiji), May 29 (Reuters, AFP) — The Fijian military said today it was taking over the government of the country and declared martial law — stepping into a constitutional crisis that has seen the Prime Minister held hostage by gunmen since May 19.

“I have, with much reluctance, assumed executive authority of the country and henceforth declared martial law,” the head of the armed forces, Commodore Frank Bainamarama, told a news conference.

“The country, in the meantime, will be run by a military government. The primary objective of this government is to take the country towards peace and stability and the well-being of Fiji.”

Troops on leave and reservists were recalled to barracks.

Commodore Bainamarama announced a 24-hour curfew in Suva. It was not immediately clear how this affected an earlier announcement of a 48-hour curfew.

The Commodore said the Fiji military forces reserved the right to use force if necessary to maintain and enforce the curfew.

Businessman George Speight, who led the gunmen into Parliament claiming he was acting on behalf of indigenous Fijians in deposing Mahendra Chaudhry’s ethnic-Indian dominated government, has since been locked in negotiations with President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara about the future of the South Pacific Island nation.

Speight claimed to be the new leader of Fiji but Mr Mara declared a state of emergency and claimed executive powers. The two sides negotiated through the indigenous Fijian Great Council of Chiefs.

Meanwhile, Mr Mara’s Private Secretary said today military officials had told him Mr Mara had resigned to enable the enforcement of martial law.

Mr Mara’s secretary, Mr Joe Brown, said the President had been moved out of his official residence a few hours before Commodore Bainamarama announced he had assumed executive authority over the Pacific island nation.

“He is in a safe place”, Mr Brown said, adding that the military had told him that Mr Mara “gladly gave up the reins” to Commodore Bainamarama.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters in Canberra today that Speight had threatened violence against his hostages, including Mr Mara’s daughter.

“Mr Mara has apparently been told by Speight... that if there is any attempt militarily to release the hostages, the first person Speight will shoot will be the President’s daughter,” Mr Downer said.

Mr Mara’s daughter, Ms Adi Nailatikau Mara, was the Tourism Minister in Mr Chaudhry’s government.

Speight’s coup attempt has stoked tensions between native islanders and ethnic Indians, who make up 44 per cent of the 800,000 population.

The first day of the coup saw mobs loot much of central Suva and as negotiations dragged on, violence returned with two soldiers and a journalist injured by gunfire on Saturday. A policeman was fatally wounded on Sunday night — when a mob went through Suva and ransacked the state-owned Fiji TV.

The soldiers were wounded when soldiers seeking to limit movement in and out of the parliamentary complex were overrun by a mob of Speight’s supporters. Speight said at the time that the army had no place intervening in the crisis.

Crowds of Fijians have flooded into the compound each day to express support for Speight.

Commodore Bainamarama said in future, access to the compound would be restricted to essential services.

The military has twice before taken over Fiji — in coups led by former Lt. Col Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987.

Commodore Bainamarama gave no details of how he would rule. But diplomatic sources said his intention was to dismiss the President and appoint himself Prime Minister.

Shortly before the curfew came into force, soldiers could be seen taking up strategic positions around the capital, setting up barricades across main roads and at key installations, including fuel depots and radio and television stations.

The move was preceded by an appeal on national radio for all reserve troops under the age of 55 to come to the Queen Elizabeth barracks, the army’s main headquarters here.

As the crisis worsened, Australia today urged its 2,000 nationals based in Suva and an estimated 3,000 tourists to leave as soon as possible. The US Embassy issued a similar advice.

Many families in the capital, as well as expatriates, were moving to the west of the country. Some foreign journalists were also leaving after being threatened.

Earlier today, in the first killing in the 11-day crisis, a policeman died from his injuries after he was shot in the back during the night’s rioting. A security guard also died from a heart attack overnight.

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