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Fijian Chiefs Elect Rebel Leader's Presidential Pick

July 14, 2000|From Associated Press

SUVA, Fiji — Captors tearfully hugged captives in an emotional end Thursday to a two-month parliamentary hostage crisis that inflamed ethnic tensions in Fiji and ravaged the South Pacific nation's crucial tourist industry.

Hours after the release of the last 18 hostages seized by rebels May 19, the Great Council of Chiefs--Fiji's traditional power--elected Ratu Josefa Iloilo as the country's president. Iloilo was rebel leader George Speight's handpicked nominee.

A vastly different Fiji emerges from the crisis. The elected government is gone, ethnic tensions remain inflamed, and the tourist industry is ravaged. The United States and other countries have urged their citizens to leave, and the island nation faces the possibility of international sanctions.

In the last week, rebel supporters have engaged in widespread civil disturbances across the nation, occupying police stations and blockading roads. But there was palpable relief that the hostage crisis, which led to the ouster of Fiji's elected government and a subsequent military takeover, was over.

The crisis began when Speight's rebels stormed Parliament and took 31 hostages, including then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. Four hostages were released June 25, and nine were freed Wednesday. The rebels are ethnic Fijians who said the nation's large ethnic Indian minority had too much power. They demanded that the country's multiracial constitution be scrapped and that Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, be deposed.

On Sunday, the military and Speight reached the deal to free the hostages in exchange for fulfilling many of Speight's demands, including a new government and curbs on Indian rights.

Speight made it clear that Fiji's three decades of democracy are over, saying the country that emerges will be different from the one that gained independence from Britain in 1970.

Unrest related to the takeover continued elsewhere. Four resorts have been seized by protesters, although no hostages are involved, the military said.

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