Friday, July 14, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Chaudhry, other hostages freed
Speight man is President

SUVA, July 13 (AFP, AP) — Deposed Fiji Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and 17 other political hostages were freed today after 55 days in captivity following which a supporter of coup leader George Speight was appointed as the new President of the island nation.

The hostages, captured on May 19 when coup leader George Speight raided Parliament in the name of indigenous Fijians, left the parliamentary complex in Red Cross trucks.

They were taken to the organisation’s headquarters in central Suva to be examined by doctors before being allowed home.

Soon after their release, Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs appointed Ratu Josefa Iloila, a supporter of Speight, as the island nation’s new President.

The chiefs earlier warned Mr Speight they would delay naming a President, prolonging the political crisis, if deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and 17 other political captives were not freed.

Mr Iloilo announced he would later this week name a government. Mr Speight has said he would be “honoured” to be Prime Minister.

Former President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, 80, stepped down and fled to the remote Lau Islands on May 29 when the Fijian military imposed martial law.

Mr Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, emerged from his ordeal battered but unbowed, insisting his priority was to get the country back on its feet.

Talking to reporters outside his Suva Point home, Mr Chaudhry confirmed he had been beaten up in the first week of his captivity.

But he said he had not been badly hurt, as had been widely feared. “I am a tough guy. I can take it,” he said with a smile.

Mr Chaudhry, sporting a grey beard and looking considerably older and thinner than before the crisis, said he bore no animosity towards Mr Speight, a failed businessman.

“I have no ill feeling towards anybody, I am a very forgiving person,” he said. He had spent two hours talking to Mr Speight just before his release, he said.

The political crisis sparked by the coup has left Fiji facing economic ruin and international isolation, with many members of its minority Indian population contemplating emigration.

But as relatives and friends gathered around Mr Chaudhry carrying placards reading: “Welcome home Mr Prime Minister. You are our PM,” he made it clear he had no intention of quitting his homeland.

“I need a bit of a rest now but I’m an optimist. I think Fiji is a great country,” he said.

“My priority is that the nation must get back on its feet. There are a lot of people suffering. They are our priority,” he added.

Asked if he still considered himself Prime Minister, he replied: “I don’t know. It’s up to what the people think.”

The deal made to secure the release of the hostages includes fulfilling a number of demands made by Mr Speight’s rebels, including a new government and a new constitution curtailing the political rights of ethnic Indians.

Martial law spokesman Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini said: “Once executive authority is handed over to the new President the military will revert to its normal role.”

But he added that the army would help police in “mopping up” operations.

At Parliament as many as 200 Speight supporters sang and cheered after the release of the hostages, apparently celebrating what they saw as a victory.

Full details of the final deal for the freedom of the hostages were not immediately available, but it was apparent the coup plotters had not given up their arms — one of the demands made by the military.

The military declared martial law on May 29.

Weeks of wrangling ended in Sunday’s agreement, which committed the coup plotters to releasing their hostages. Nine were freed yesterday.

The release of the hostages came as indigenous people seized a top tourist resort, Fiji Forbes on Laucala Island.

Martial law spokesman Major Howard Politini confirmed that people claiming to be landowners had seized Laucala, but said no other details were available.

Laucala is owned by American Steven Forbes whose father, publishing millionaire Malcolm Forbes, bought it in 1972. The island could not be contacted from Suva.

Early this week people seized the exclusive Turtle Island Resort, holding 45 guests for 24 hours before releasing them unharmed after claiming indigenous rights to the land.

One person was killed today and 11 persons injured following a shootout during a prison riot outside Suva, local radio reported.

Prisoners at Naboro Prison have for the past two days held at least 10 warders hostage in an action related to the continuing political drama in Fiji.

Fiji military forces took action after an attempted mass escape.

The police confirmed to AFP that one person was dead and there was an indeterminate number of injured.

Meanwhile, Fiji’s powerful Pacific neighbours have welcomed the release of deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and 17 other hostages taken by rebels. But they have refused to remove the threat of sanctions if Fiji does not return to democracy.

“Over the past seven or eight weeks most of us have wondered whether the hostages would emerge unharmed and alive,” New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said today. “The fact that they have now is certainly excellent news,” he added.

Mr Chaudhry and several of other lawmakers were taken hostage on May 19 by gunmen demanding that Fiji’s ethnic Indian minority be stripped of political power.

Mr Chaudhry, Fiji’s first Prime Minister of Indian ancestry, was among the 18 hostages freed today.

Mr Goff, who has denounced rebel leader George Speight as a terrorist and called for Mr Chaudhry’s reinstatement, described the release as “one bright spot in an otherwise pretty dismal picture.”

New Zealand, Australia, the USA and the European Union have all threatened sanctions if Fiji does not restore democracy.

Both Mr Goff and Australian Prime Minister John Howard said today sanctions could still be imposed.


India welcomes release
Tribune News Service

NEW DELHI, July 13 — India today greeted with a sense of relief the release of deposed Fiji Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet colleagues who were being held hostage since May 19.

A spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs said here the government "greets, with a sense of relief the decision of Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs to release Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet colleagues from detention in Fiji’s Parliament building where they have been held hostage since May 19".

"We expect that this first step will lead to the restoration of a democratic and constitutional government within the framework of Fiji’s Constitution of 1997", the spokesman said.

"It is our expectation that the Commonwealth’s principles outlined under the Harare Declaration and the Millbrook Action Programme will continue to be adhered to", the spokesman pointed out.

India’s reaction on the latest developments in Fiji was a cautious step so that New Delhi could study and analyse the situation before formulating its further strategy. India would not like to be seen applying pressure on the present despensation in Suva lest it had an adverse impact on the Fiji Indians. New Delhi’s policy towards Fiji would be in tandem with the countries of Commonwealth and the G-8 countries, the sources said.

When asked whether the Indian High Commission in Suva would meet the released leaders including Mr Chaudhry, the spokesman gave a noncommittal reply saying that it was part of the mandate of any diplomatic mission to be in touch with important political leaders of that country where they were situated.

On being pressed further, the spokesman said at the moment, "We are setting the benchmarks for what we expect."

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