Saturday, June 24, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Fiji rebels, army strike deal
End to hostages’ 36-day ordeal in sight

SUVA, FIJI, June 23 (AP, AFP, Reuters) — Gunmen holding 31 political hostages in Fiji and the country’s military rulers struck a deal today that could end the captives’ 36-day ordeal soon, negotiators said.

Military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama and rebel leader George Speight planned to sign the accord tomorrow, following a breakthrough in negotiations today after six days of talks, the spokesmen said.

Mr Metuisela Mua, one of Speight’s advisers, said the hostages could be released any time after the signing, possibly within hours.

Such a deal would end the standoff at Parliament. But it also could leave Fiji open to widespread criticism and even economic sanctions by other countries because the accord is expected to scrap some of Fiji’s democratic traditions, reduce the rights of its ethnic Indian minority, grant an amnesty to the gunmen who captured the hostages and immobilised the government, and disable the already struggling economy.

For instance, the accord is expected to include promises the military already has made to Speight, such as the removal of the elected government, which included the first Fijian Prime Minister from the Indian minority; and changes in the Constitution to strip Indians.

Minority Indians already are fleeing the country in large numbers and news reports of the agreement to end the crisis aren’t expected to persuade them to stay.

“We have now reached an agreement,” Mr Joe Brown, Private Secretary to the former President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, told reporters in Suva today.

“The journey that started on the 19th of May will be completed tomorrow,” said Mr Brown, adding that the agreement would be signed at 11 a.m. local time tomorrow.

The details of the agreement remain unknown and Mr Brown made no comment on the fate of the hostages who have now been held for 36 days.

Rebel leader George Speight and his gunmen have held Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, hostage inside Suva’s parliamentary complex since May 19 when they overthrew the government in the name of indigenous Fijians.

Speight has always said he would release his hostage once an accord, which includes an amnesty for himself and his supporters, was signed.

Local media today reported that Chaudhry looked “haggard and dejected” as he took a brief walk in the besieged Parliament.

Fiji Times reporter Akanisi Motufaga was allowed to watch the 16 ethnic Indian hostages as they took an afternoon walk around the upper parliamentary compound.

She said Mr Chaudhry looked “haggard and dejected” as he “shuffled along with his head bowed and shoulders stooped. He did not look up nor talk to anyone during the 15-minute walk.”

The 57-year-old looked as if he had lost weight, was unshaven and appeared to have aged. “He was not the same man who only two months ago strode purposefully along the same corridors on government business,” The Times reported.

Speight has repeatedly banned foreign media from access to the hostages, granting only rare opportunities for local media.

The announcement of a resolution came after days of talks between Speight, military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama and their lawyers.

“I’m feeling optimistic, as always,” Speight told reporters as he left for a new day of talks today. Speight had not emerged from the talks when the announcement was made.

Speight had initially demanded that Indians in Fiji be denied political power, but the former insurance salesman later conceded he would accept Indians in a future government.

NEW DELHI (UNI): The Indian Government refused to comment on the agreement between Fiji rebels and military leaders on the release of deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and other hostages, stating that it would first examine the “contours of the settlement.”

In response to a question on the agreement, to be signed tomorrow, a spokesman of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) said “Our priority is release of hostages and restoration of democratic government in Fiji.”

The spokesman said the government would examine the agreement before making any comment on it. 

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