Indians attacked as Fiji slides towards civil war

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The Independent Online

Armed supporters of George Speight roamed the streets of Fiji's second biggest island yesterday, rounding up dozens of ethnic Indian men and detaining them in the town's barracks. Two New Zealand pilots, employees of the domestic airline Air Fiji, were also abducted and were still being held last night.

Armed supporters of George Speight roamed the streets of Fiji's second biggest island yesterday, rounding up dozens of ethnic Indian men and detaining them in the town's barracks. Two New Zealand pilots, employees of the domestic airline Air Fiji, were also abducted and were still being held last night.

The fresh turmoil was a backlash against the imprisonment of Mr Speight, the nationalist coup leader who may stand trial on treason charges.

Shops and businesses belonging to Indi-Fijians in Labasa, on the island of Vanua Levu, were ransacked and looted in retaliation for Mr Speight's arrest on Wednesday night and for an army raid yesterday on his base just east of the capital, Suva, in which one man died and nearly 370 of his supporters were detained.

Observers of Fiji's 10-week political crisis say the racially divided nation is teetering on the brink of civil war, with Mr Speight's indigenous supporters incensed by the unexpected military crackdown and the army's belated attempts to stand its ground.

Mr Speight - who held the government of Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, for 56 days after storming parliament on 19 May - was detained with three aides for violating the terms of an amnesty by failing to surrender weapons that he and his associates stole from military arsenals to stage the coup.

But the army, which seized power 10 days after the coup, said yesterday that he could face treason charges for threatening to kill President Ratu Josefa Iloilo if he did not appoint an interim government stacked with Speight sympathisers.

Treason carries the death penalty, which has not been enforced in Fiji since the former British colony gained its independence in 1970.

A day of heightened tension began with the dawn raidby dozens of heavily armed troops on a school in Koluba, where supporters of Mr Speight's rabid brand of antiIndian nationalism have congregated since vacating the the parliamentary compound after the political hostages were released a fortnight ago.

One man died from the effects of tear gas fired by soldiers, according to Lt-Col Filipo Tarakinikini, a military spokesman. Forty people were injured, and 369 arrested.

Lt-Col Tarakinikini said 50 ethnic Indians, abducted from the small town of Labasa, were released unharmed from a military barracks occupied by the rebels after the army threatened to use force to free them.

According to some reports, as many as 200 Indian men had been picked off the streets during the day and taken away in trucks. Residents were warned to stay indoors as 50 gunmen roamed Labasa, shooting wildly and looting shops. Police, who are unarmed, said they were powerless to intervene.

The two pilots were kidnapped by three armed men after landing at Savusavu airport on Vanua Levu and were taken to the nearby village of Nabalebale. Air New Zealand, the national carrier, later cancelled a flight to Fiji, and Australia advised its citizens to leave the country.

A farmhouse owned by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the former president deposed after Mr Speight's coup, was reportedly burnt down by rebels yesterday.

In Suva, soldiers set up roadblocks in streets leading to the city barracks where Mr Speight is being held. Security was increased at the main international airport in Nadi.

Lt-Col Tarakinikini said Fiji could no longer operate in a climate of fear. "We are going to the root of the matter," he said. "We are arresting the people who orchestrated the whole campaign of civil unrest."

What was unclear last night was whether the interim government, which is supposed to rule Fiji until general elections are held in three years, will be sworn in today as scheduled.

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