Hostage crisis prolongs Fiji's state of emergency

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The Independent Online

The Fijian army extended the country's 10-week state of emergency by another fortnight yesterday as it prepared to move against nationalist rebels holding 40 soldiers hostage in a military barracks on the second biggest island.

The Fijian army extended the country's 10-week state of emergency by another fortnight yesterday as it prepared to move against nationalist rebels holding 40 soldiers hostage in a military barracks on the second biggest island.

The army warned that it would take "drastic action" unless the armed rebels, a dozen of them, end their occupation of the barracks in Labasa on Vanua Levu.

The rebels have until midnight tonight to comply, after the deadline was extended by another 24 hours. Army officers and tribal chiefs are negotiating in an effort to resolve the stand-off.

There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that indigenous Fijians loyal to George Speight, the incarcerated coup leader, had kidnapped 20 ethnic Indian families in a sugar and rice farming area near Labasa.

Witnesses said they heard four or five shots fired as 15 armed men rampaged through the village of Dreketi and blocked the main road to the provincial capital. However, the military denied there had been any abductions in the areaover the weekend. Last Thursday, 40 Indo-Fijians were briefly held hostage.

As rebels on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu agreed to abandon their occupation of the country's biggest hydroelectric power station, Labasa has become one of the few remaining pockets of hard-core support for Mr Speight. Weapons stolen from military arsenals before the coup are believed to be in the hands of the rebels there.

Mr Speight - arrested last week after holding hostage the government of Mahendra Chaudhry for two months inside parliament - and six of his key aides were moved at the weekend to Nukulau, an uninhabited island.

In a graphic illustration of the reversal of fortunes that has befallen the coup plotters, they were visited yesterday by John Scott, head of the Fijian Red Cross, who made a daily pilgrimage to the parliamentary compound to monitor the welfare of Mr Chaudhry and the other hostages.

Captain Howard Politini, an army spokesman who accompanied Mr Scott to Nukulau, said that Mr Speight - who is under investigation for treason, unlawful assembly, theft and firearms offences - was no longer cocksure. "Totally the opposite, very solemn and puzzled, certainly very depressed," he said. "The shoe is on the other foot. They appreciate the irony."

Mr Chaudhry, meanwhile, will meet the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, today after flying to Sydney last night for a week-long visit. Mr Chaudhry, who is accompanied by his wife and son, will hold talks with several political leaders and will also have medical checks. He said that he would continue to work for the restoration of democracy in Fiji, but ruled out forming a government in exile.

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