Fiji Coup Leader Speight Arrested

At least one person was reported killed today as Fiji’s military began a crackdown on supporters of coup leader George Speight.

The coup leader was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of arms offenses.

The military said violence erupted when it tried to disperse rebel supporters from a school near Suva, close to where Speight was arrested at a bridge checkpoint.

“One rebel has since died of his wounds and 24 are still in hospital,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Thirty-two others were wounded but did not require treatment, he said.

Speight, who sparked a political crisis when he stormed parliament in May taking most of the Cabinet hostage, was arrested after allegations of arms offenses and threats to Fiji’s head of state, ailing 79-year-old President Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

Tarakinikini said amnesty granted to Speight, as part of the deal to secure the release of the hostages, was only to come into effect once all his weapons had been returned. He said that a total of 18 M-16s and pistols had been taken from military arsenals and had still not been handed back.

Speight May Face Treason Charges

Fiji’s military said today it was investigating whether Speight could also be charged with treason.

The military deployed troops across the racially split nation fearing renewed civil unrest after a new government and possibly a new prime minister is named today.

Independent Radio station FM 96 said hundreds of rebel supporters were rounded up and taken to a mobile police headquarters near Koluba after the shooting.

It said about 30 young men, wrists and ankles bound, were driven toward the capital.

Speight had threatened new unrest if his nationalist candidate for prime minister, 60-year-old diplomat Adi Samanunu Cakobau, was not accepted in place of military-backed caretaker premier Laisenia Qarase.

Tarakinikini said five warning shots were fired before Speight was arrested along with two advisers and his bodyguard. He said Speight and his supporters would be held inside the Queen Elizabeth military barracks on a hilltop overlooking Suva but did not say how long they would be held.

A History of Racial Tensions

Speight and his gunmen stormed parliament on May 19 in the name of indigenous Fijian rights. The group held Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, and most of his Cabinet hostage for 56 days before releasing them on July 13.

He won widespread support among Fijian nationalists in his bid to limit the political power of Fiji’s Indians, who make up 44 percent of the 800,000 population and dominate the tourism and sugar-based economy which has been hit hard by the crisis.

Sporadic violence flared around Suva and other parts of the country in the wake of his coup and the military declared martial law on May 29 in an attempt to restore order.

International concern over Fiji’s protracted political crisis grew Wednesday, with Australia suggesting there could be a role for the United Nations. Australian trades unions called for direct U.N. intervention.