Fiji's military warns rebels of further crackdown

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The Independent Online

Expanding their crackdown on coup supporters, Fiji's military gave a group of armed rebels holding hostages at a barracks until midnight Sunday to clear out or face "drastic action."

Expanding their crackdown on coup supporters, Fiji's military gave a group of armed rebels holding hostages at a barracks until midnight Sunday to clear out or face "drastic action."

The town of Labasa on the Fiji's second-largest island of Vanua Levu is one of few remaining pockets of hardcore support for arrested coup leader George Speight, who is being held on a prison island while authorities conduct a treason investigation.

A standoff at another scene of unrest ended Sunday when rebel supporters handed back control of Fiji's largest hydroelectric power station following negotiations over the settlement of a land claim.

Around a dozen rebels have taken over a small military base at Labasa and several times have taken small groups of ethnic Indians hostage before letting them go. The group has not made any demands, but their grievances include land claims, the military said.

Spokesman Maj. Howard Politini said there were unconfirmed reports that shots had been fired and a new group of ethnic Indians taken hostage Sunday.

Politini said the rebel group had been told to return all stolen weapons and vacate the barracks by midnight Sunday. Failure to do so would result in "drastic action," which could include a raid by troops.

By nightfall, the barracks was still occupied. Politini did not say whether any action would be taken immediately after the deadline passed, or sometime later.

Speight, a failed businessman, led a group of indigenous Fijians who stormed Parliament on May 19 and held dozens of officials for two months.

The military took power 10 days after the raid and finally met rebel demands for an amnesty, discarding the multiracial constitution and ousting the government of Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first prime minister of Indian descent.

In exchange, the last of the hostages were released on July 13.

The rebels claim that ethnic Indians - first brought to Fiji in the 1870s by British colonialists as indentured laborers - have too much power and are threatening Fijian culture. Ethnic Indians make up 44 percent of Fiji's 814,000 population and dominate business and commerce.

A new Fijian government was sworn in Friday and is expected to prepare the way for elections, possibly in three years. Although it is strongly pro-indigenous Fijian, it includes no close Speight supporters. It has one ethnic Indian, a junior minister.

While promising a government of "inclusion and compassion," new Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said he will "vigorously pursue" a nationalist agenda and will soon appoint a commission to rewrite the constitution to strengthen indigenous Fijians' hold on power.

Chaudhry flew on Sunday to Sydney, where he will hold talks with Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Monday about the crisis.

On his arrival, Chaudhry said he would continue to work for the restoration of democracy in Fiji but tentatively ruled out forming a government in exile.

"We've decided that we'll be in the country," he said.

In Fiji's western district, a group of tribal chiefs who met Saturday said they would push forward with a plan to form a breakaway government if the country does not return to rule under the 1997 multiracial constitution.

Spokesman Paulo Ralulu said the chiefs would present a declaration of intent to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo soon. But it was unclear if the signatories represented all the region's chiefs, or exactly how the plan would proceed.

More than 350 rebels, including Speight, were arrested last week during the military crackdown. Speight had earlier threatened a new campaign of civil unrest unless the new Cabinet was stacked with his supporters.

The military said allegations that Speight had threatened Iloilo's life could lead to charges of sedition or treason, which carries a maximum penalty of death. Unlawful assembly, theft and firearms offenses were also being investigated.

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