Speight marooned as Fiji's military warns of further crackdown

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The Independent Online

Fiji coup leader George Speight, who held dozens of hostages in Parliament for eight weeks, was himself imprisoned on an island Saturday to await charges that could include treason, the military said.

Fiji coup leader George Speight, who held dozens of hostages in Parliament for eight weeks, was himself imprisoned on an island Saturday to await charges that could include treason, the military said.

Shortly before dawn, a navy patrol boat carried Speight and six key advisers from cells in the city's main army barracks to an islet less than a mile (1.5 kilometers) across and within view of the capital, Suva.

The military declared the island and a neighboring one "prison zones" under emergency powers invoked after Speight's coup.

Navy runabouts with troops aboard patrolled the area Saturday, keeping other craft from approaching.

"They will be under guard until the investigations are over," spokesman Lt. Ro Alipate Mataitini said. "They can try to make a swim for it, but there are plenty of sharks out there in the harbor."

Speight was arrested last week in a mounting crackdown meant to end 10 weeks of turmoil in the South Pacific nation.

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 army 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.

Australia, New Zealand and the United States imposed sanctions, demanding the quick restoration of democracy.

Police were investigating allegations that rebels threatened the life of new President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, which the military said could lead to a charge of treason against Speight, carrying a maximum sentence of death.

A new Fijian government was sworn in Friday. It is expected to prepare the way for elections, perhaps in three years.

Although it is strongly pro-indigenous Fijian, it includes no close Speight supporters. It includes one ethnic Indian, a junior minister.

Laisenia Qarase, a banker who promised to "vigorously pursue" a nationalist agenda, was sworn in as prime minister Friday.

Qarase, who has the backing of the military, promised a government of "moderation, inclusion and compassion" but said he would strengthen indigenous Fijians' hold on power and give them a "special place in our society."

The deposed government called the new administration discriminatory.

"It effectively disenfranchises the Indo-Fijian community," said former deputy prime minister Tupeni Baba. "It's an open invitation for the international community to impose further sanctions."

The military's crackdown continued Saturday with warnings that "stronger measures" may be taken against rebels who seized a barracks on an island north of Suva and were holding an unknown number of townspeople hostage.

"We have given them an ultimatum," Mataitini said of the rebels in Labasa, one of a few remaining strongholds of Speight support.

The rebels must return all weapons, vacate the base and release the hostages by midnight Sunday or the military will take "more drastic action," which could include storming the barracks, Mataitini said.

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