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Looting and race riots follow Fiji coup attempt

THE STENCH of anarchy and burning rubber hung over the Fijian capital, Suva, last night after the city was consumed by riots in the wake of an...

THE STENCH of anarchy and burning rubber hung over the Fijian capital, Suva, last night after the city was consumed by riots in the wake of an attempted coup.

The attempted takeover was mounted by masked civilians who stormed parliament and took the Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet hostage at gunpoint.

As night fell on the ravaged city, Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, was still being held captive in an upper chamber of the Parliament building. Gangs of youths roamed the streets, looting burnt-out shops in defiance of a dusk-till-dawn curfew.

Smoke from charred buildings swirled in the darkness, creating ghostly scenes in palm-fringed central Suva.

The coup took place on the first anniversary of Mr Chaudhry's election victory and was headed by George Speight, a Fijian businessman who claimed power in the name of the majority indigenous population.

It followed months of escalating tension between indigenous Fijians and the ethnic Indians who dominate commercial life in the South Pacific nation.

Mr Speight led seven men armed with AK-47 rifles into Parliament yesterday morning and marched Mr Chaudhry and about 50 cabinet colleagues upstairs.

Shots were fired during the takeover, according to diplomatic sources, but there have been no reports so far of casualties.

Mr Speight said he was confident the ethnic Fijian-dominated military would not move against him.

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``Despite persistent urgings by certain members of the public, including the president, the military (will not act) because in doing so they will be going against the will of the indigenous people,'' he said.

Businesses, mainly Indian-owned, and schools shut as shop were burnt and looted in the capital, which overlook the shimmering waters of the Pacific.


Most international telephone lines were cut and Suva's international airport was closed to traffic. President Ratu Sir Kamises Mara declared a state of emergency.

Demonstrators, gathered outside Parliament, cheered and chanted on receiving news of the coup, while truck drivers played reggae music in celebration.

The action took place less than 100 miles from Nadi, Fiji's tourism gateway on the main island of Viti Levu, and from the Bucolic beach resort which are the more usual image of this tropical archipelago nation. With the violence so far confined to Suva, the tourists who represent Fiji's economic life-blood continued to pour into Nadi, on the west coast.

The attack on the Government sparked a wave of international condemnation, with the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, joining New Zealand, Australia and India in expressing horror at the trampling of the democratic process in Fiji, a member of the Commonwealth.

Mr Speight, a businessman in the logging industry, named himself President and Ratu Timoci, a nationalist MP, interim Prime Minister. Mr Speight's claimed executive power and revoked the constitution, saying he was acting against a government dominated by Indians.

But it was not clear to what extent, if any, his actions were supported by the Fijian military.

The military stayed in barracks until two army battalions were deployed late in the day to help police maintain order. However, there was no sign of the army attempting to end the stand-off in Parliament. The Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said there was a rumour that two of the seven gunmen were army officers.

``That obviously indicates there are some people in the military supporting this but the military generally does not,'' he said.

Mr Timoci, a member of the Fijian Association Party, is a political novice who has only been in Parliament for two years. For residents of Suva, yesterday's events recalled two coups in 1987 led by General Sitiveni Rabuka, who invaded Parliament to depose an Indian-dominated Government and declared Fiji - a British colony until independence in 1970 - a Republic.

In an ironic twist, it was Mr Rabuka who shuttled between Parliament and Government House yesterday, acting as mediator between Mr Mara and Mr Speight.

* Independent News Service

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