A firefight erupted outside parliament between troops and supporters of rebel leader George Speight today, just hours after a former banking executive was sworn in as the head of a military-installed all-Fijian interim government.
The violence was a blow to new Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s hopes for a peaceful resolution to Fiji’s hostage crisis. Speight is holding 27 members of the ousted Indian-led government at parliament.
Each side accused the other of starting today’s fighting, which lasted about 15 minutes and left five Speight supporters wounded — all shot in the leg.
At almost the same time, three Speight sympathizers were confiscating arms and ammunition at an army base in the town of Labasa on the northern island of Vanua Levu.
Muting the Mutiny
The military quickly dispatched negotiators to keep the mutiny from spreading and from further complicating an already tangled situation.
“I think what happened in Labasa will turn into a domino effect across the country,” Speight said.
The decision by the military on Monday to appoint a new government comprised entirely of indigenous Fijians appeared to meet Speight’s stated goals.
Speight, who launched his coup May 19, claims to be acting on behalf of Fiji’s indigenous majority in his fight for a new government system that denies the ethnic Indian minority political power. Deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry — who is among the hostages — is the first Fijian of Indian ancestry to lead the country.
But at a news conference, Speight was angry at the military’s unilateral appointments because they did not include his choice to head the country.
“The actions of the army are … considered insulting, provocative and devoid of any consideration of the stability of the country,” the former insurance executive said, adding that he did not expect the new government to be in power long.
Qarase Calls for Unity
In a speech after being sworn in, Qarase said he accepted the job as a “call for national unity.” Qarase said the 1997 Constitution would be replaced to strike a balance between ensuring the rights of indigenous Fijians and serving as a “framework for living together as a multiracial and multicultural society.”
He urged the gunmen to release the hostages immediately.
“We cannot and must not allow the inconsiderate and irresponsible actions of a few to drag all of us down as a country,” Qarase said.
Dressed in traditional Sulu skirts, 19 indigenous Fijian men — no women are in the new government — took turns holding a black Bible as they swore to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Republic of the Fijian Islands” at a ceremony at military headquarters in the capital, Suva.
Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who assumed power 10 days after the May 19 coup, appointed the interim leaders. He has said he will retain power until the captives are freed.
Indians were brought to Fiji over a century ago by English colonialists seeking indentured laborers for rich sugar cane fields. They make up about 44 percent of Fiji’s population; indigenous Fijians account for about 51 percent.