Ten government ministers and backbench MPs held hostage by gunnmen in Fiji’s Parliament in a self-styled “civil coup” were freed early today after being forced to resign from office.

They included Assistant Information Minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi and Assistant Housing and Transport Minister John Ali.

Explaining on a local radio station why he had given in to the pressure, Ali said: “Sometimes you have to use your sixth sense to avoid complications.”

They were freed about 4.30 am. One of the 10 freed captives was a bodyguard of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

About 20 parliamentary staff were released earlier.

Chaudhry, held captive with his government since the gunmen seized the Parliament complex on Friday morning, was due to be seen by two doctors this morning after he reportedly collapsed last night and was treated by Red Cross officers.

His son, Rajendra Chaudhry, who is the prime minister’s private secretary, was also reported to have signed his resignation and was expected to be released soon.

Sported a black eye
Rajendra Chaudhry told a reporter he was “fine,” but he sported a black eye.

Journalists inside the Parliament complex reported that the self-proclaimed Head of State of the rebel government, businessman George Speight, had expected an overnight assault on Parliament by the country’s military forces which have vowed loyalty to the constitutional government.

However, an estimated 50 armed dissidents are inside Parliament, including younger members of an elite force from the military.

Yesterday, Sitiveni Rabuka, leader of two military coups in 1987, said he still hoped his “shuttle diplomacy” between the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and the rebel regime would defuse the hostage crisis.

But Speight has declared today a “rest day” from negotiations.

Ratu Mara, who has declared a state of emergency, appealed on nationwide television last night for the “terrorists” to end their two-day-old insurrection.

In an exclusive interview with Fiji Television, Rabuka said he hoped that those who “pepetrated this illegal and treasonous act” were brought to justice.

Two military coups
Rabuka staged two military coups in 1987 to depose an elected Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government in 1987, but he later played a key role in drafting the multiracial 1997 constitution which restored genuine democracy, and he has since been a Commonwealth peacemaker in the Solomon Islands ethnic conflict.

Before serious dialogue could begin between Government House and the coup leaders, Rabuka said he had sought to persuade the gunmen to:

  • Free Prime Minister Chaudhry, the Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government and parliamentarians;
  • Lay down their arms; and
  • Leave the Parliament complex.

Police and the military yesterday and last night tightened security around Parliament and the central business district of the capital, Suva, which had been ravaged by widespread looting and arson on Friday afternoon.

Damage was estimated at more than F$30 million — 167 shops were looted and five shopping buildings gutted by fire.

Police reported more than 200 arrests and 39 men were yesterday charged in court with looting and damage to property. The Suva Magistrates Court will continue to hold special hearings over the weekend.

Coup leader Speight warned authorities not to try to take Parliament by force or he would not be responsible for fatalities.

Denied assault reports
He denied reports that Prime Minister Chaudhry had been physically assaulted and threatened with death.

He branded the reports as “scandalous and deserving to be treated with the utmost contempt”.

The “cabinet” lineup named by Speight last night was shaping up as a list of Taukei, or indigenous nationalist extremist identities and dissidents within Chaudhry’s coalition government partner parties.

Besides Speight as “prime minister,” other posts included “deputy prime minister” Ratu Timoci Silatolu, of the Fijian Association Party; “foreign affairs” Senator Berenado Vunibobo, former Finance and Foreign Affairs minister in Rabuka’s government; “national seurity” Savenaca Drunidalo, a former senior army officer; “Fijian affairs” Ratu Tu’uakitau Cokanauto, a Bau chief and Ratu Mara’s brother-in-law, “home affairs” Colonel Metuisela Mua, former head of the Fiji Secret Service.

A prominent journalist and publicist, Jo Nata, was named as an adviser to Speight.

Ratu Mara paid tribute to Rabuka’s attempts to resolve the hostage crisis and appealed for the attackers “who terrorise our nation and threaten the lives of its government” to give in peacefully.

In his television address, Ratu Mara described Rabuka as a “trusted and invaluable mediator between Government House and the terrorist group.”

“I wish to declare to the nation that I will use all the authority and resources at my command to bring about a just and peaceful solution to a tragic chapter in our history,” he said.

Ratu Mara added that he would not bow to threats and coercion.

This article was first published by The New Zealand Herald Online. David Robie is senior lecturer and coordinator of the journalism programme at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.