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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arrest of Speight Spurs Fiji Turmoil




SUVA, Fiji -- Unrest spread across Fiji on Thursday following the arrest of nationalist rebel leader George Speight, with gunmen briefly taking some 40 ethnic Indians hostage and two New Zealand pilots kidnapped.


Police in the town of Labasa on Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-largest island, warned residents to stay indoors as 50 gunmen roamed the streets, shooting indiscriminately and looting shops.


"We are risking our lives. We haven't got any arms or anything like that. We are confronting rebel groups who have arms," said a policeofficer in Labasa.


Fiji has been in turmoil since Speight and his gunmen stormed parliament in May and held ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and most of his Cabinet hostage for 56 days.


Police said some 40 ethnic Indians were rounded up in trucks and taken by gunmen to Labasa's rebel-held military barracks until the military negotiated their release a few hours later.


On Vanua Levu island, the New Zealanders working as Air Fiji pilots were kidnapped by gunmen and taken to a nearby village, airport officials said. The pilots are still being held.


New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark called on the Fijian military to secure the pilots' release and restore law and order.


"It is completely unsatisfactory for the citizens of another country to be caught up in Fiji's internal problems," Clark said.


Air New Zealand said it had canceled flight stopovers in Fiji because of the latest civil unrest, sparked by Speight's arrest Wednesday, news he may face treason charges and a tear-gas raid by the military on his rebel camp near Suva. More than 300 rebels were captured in the raid.


Fiji's military said it was in full control and was conducting a "mopping-up operation" to arrest more rebels.


But troops beefed up security around Suva's main military barracks, where Speight was being held, and erected roadblocks on streets leading to the barracks.


Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini said Speight's threat of more unrest if the ailing 79-year-old President Josefa Iloilo did not name a new rebel-dominated government could be regarded as treason.


"If that is confirmed, then that is a treasonous act," Tarakinikini told reporters in Suva.


"It is basically a coup being conducted on the head of state to make a decision under duress in favor of a certain group."


Treason carries the death penalty, which hasn't been enforced since 1970.


Speight and a small group of advisers were arrested at a bridge checkpoint as he left the rebel camp at Kolubat. Tarakinikini said Speight was arrested for failing to stick to an amnesty deal to surrender all weapons after the hostage crisis ended July 13.