Elite troops apparently loyal to an imprisoned former coup leader seized Fiji’s military headquarters and battled with regular units today, holding five officers hostage until the army retook the barracks.
Two soldiers were killed and 10 injured during a day of fighting between the mutineers and troops loyal to the government.
Military spokesman Maj. Howard Politini told Radio Fiji in the evening that loyalist troops launched a heavy assault and retook the Queen Victoria Barracks, but that about 20 rebels had escaped and were heading for the capital, Suva.
Shortly after the announcement, loud explosions and machine gun fire could be heard close to Suva. The cause was not immediately known.
Politini said all five hostages had been freed in the counterassault. He gave no further details.
Heavy Gunfire and Explosions
The fighting began just after noon local time when members of the army’s elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare unit attacked the barracks and took it.
Radio station FM96 aired a telephone interview with an unidentified officer from inside the barracks who said he had a gun to his head and that he was one of a number of officers held by CRW rebels.
The officer said the rebels wanted to negotiate with senior military officers but did not elaborate on their demands.
The government, however, issued an ultimatum to the rebels to lay down their arms by sundown or face military action. Soon after it passed, heavy gunfire and explosions were heard from inside the barracks.
An Appeal for Calm
In a nationally televised address, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase appealed for calm and pledged to bring an end to the mutiny. “Justice will be done, I promise you,” Qarase said. “Events at army camp will not deter the interim government from the pursuit of its objective to return the country to peace and harmony.”
Renegade members of the CRW were key members of a group of gunmen that stormed Parliament in May, launching a coup that toppled the government of then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.
The coup was masterminded by failed businessman George Speight, who said he wanted to rein in the large ethnic Indian minority, which controls much of Fiji’s commerce. Chaudhry was Fiji’s first prime minister of ethnic Indian descent.
Speight was arrested after the coup and is imprisoned pending trial on treason charges that carry the death penalty.
Awaiting a Real Government
Fiji, a nation of 320 islands about 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia, has been ruled since by a military-installed civilian government that pledged to hold elections within two years.
The government warned people to keep off the streets of Suva and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
“What may have triggered this off is the fact that commander of the military forces Frank Bainimarama has said he wants to clean out those members in the armed forces involved in the coup of May 19,” New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said.