Gun battle breaks out in Fiji military barracks

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The Independent Online

Elite troops apparently loyal to coup leader George Speight fought with regular army units at Fiji's military headquarters, with two soldiers reported killed.

Elite troops apparently loyal to coup leader George Speight fought with regular army units at Fiji's military headquarters, with two soldiers reported killed.

News media reported that members of the army's Counter Revolutionary Warfare unit had launched a mutiny and were holding an unknown number of army officers. The rebels' demands were not immediately known.

Radio station FM96 aired a telephone interview with an unidentified officer from inside the barracks who said he had a gun to his head and that he was one of a number of officers held by CRW rebels.

The officer said the rebels wanted to negotiate with senior military officers but did not elaborate on their demands.

Military spokesman Maj. Howard Politini told Radio Fiji the situation "had been contained." He did not elaborate and the hostages were not yet freed.

Shortly before Politini spoke, heavy gunfire and explosions were heard from inside the barracks. The exchange followed a reported government ultimatum to the rebels to lay down their arms by sundown or face military action.

Renegade members of the CRW were key members of a group of gunmen that stormed Parliament in May, launching a coup that toppled the government of then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

The coup was masterminded by failed businessman Speight, who said he wanted to rein in the large ethnic Indian minority, which controls much of Fiji's commerce. Chaudhry was Fiji's first prime minister of ethnic Indian descent.

Speight was arrested after the coup and is imprisoned pending trial on treason charges that carry the death penalty.

Fiji, a nation of 320 islands about 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia, is ruled by a military-installed civilian government that pledged to hold elections within two years.

The government warned people to keep off the streets of the capital, Suva, and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew. There was no immediate sign of the unrest spreading.

Politini said the hostage-takers and hostages were confined to the officers' mess hall.

Two soldiers were reported killed. State-owned Radio Fiji said nine others were wounded.

"What may have triggered this off is the fact that commander of the military forces Frank Bainimarama has said he wants to clean out those members in the armed forces involved in the coup of May 19," New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said.

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