Ex-PM: Violence will force Indians to quit Fiji

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The Independent Online

The deposed Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, fears that 300,000 Indo-Fijians - most of the ethnic Indian population - will leave because of the armed nationalist coup led by George Speight.

The deposed Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, fears that 300,000 Indo-Fijians - most of the ethnic Indian population - will leave because of the armed nationalist coup led by George Speight.

Speaking in Sydney yesterday after meeting the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, Mr Chaudhry said he understood the despair of fellow Indo-Fijians, who have faced a wave of racially motivated violence since the coup in May. "People of Indian origin feel shattered and insecure."

Mr Chaudhry, who was held hostage by Mr Speight's gunmen for 56 days, is visiting Australia at the start of an overseas tour to drum up support for the restoration of democracy in Fiji. He goes to New Zealand tomorrow and to Europe next week.

He said he still regarded himself as Fiji's legitimate prime minister and would like his democratically elected government reinstated - but he accepted there was no realistic prospect of that happening.

In Suva, Fijian authorities began charging hundreds of Mr Speight's supporters with unlawful assembly yesterday. The rebels appeared in the capital's main courthouse amid tight security and were processed in batches of 10. They were detained during a military crackdown last week in which Mr Speight was arrested on suspicion of treason. The army regained control of a barracks in the northern town of Labasa, where 40 soldiers had been held hostage for several weeks.

Mr Chaudhry said that Mr Speight, now incarcerated on a remote offshore island, had been the frontman for an alliance of opposition politicians and businessmen opposed to his Indian-dominated Labour government. A destabilisation campaign had begun as soon as he was elected, he said, and police failed to pass on warnings that a coup was in the offing.

"Speight came out of the blue," he said. "He had never featured in political life." With Fiji now ruled by an interim government committed to rewriting the constitution to exclude ethnic Indians from power, Mr Chaudhry is considering forming a government-in-exile - either in western Fiji, his support base, or in Australia. "We can't just close shop and leave it to the new regime," he said.

The former prime minister looked tired and thin; he has had difficulty sleeping since he and members of his Cabinet were released three weeks ago.

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