SPEIGHT CLAIMS RABUKA IS NO LONGER CHAIRMAN OF FIJI’S GREAT COUNCIL OF

CHIEFS

By Erin Phelan

SUVA, Fiji Islands (May 22, 2000 - PINA Nius Online)---George Speight, leader of the civilian takeover, has claimed that Sitiveni Rabuka is no longer Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs, nor will he be used as mediator.

Speight said he had lost trust in Rabuka, and felt he was biased against the civilian movement still holding Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his government captive.

The Fiji Times reported that 34 members of Parliament still remain inside, after Speight released Chaudhry's personal bodyguard and nine MPs early Sunday morning. They were freed only after they had signed a document resigning from government.

Rabuka called an emergency meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs for Tuesday morning to discuss the events of the past four days. Speight now says the first thing on Tuesday morning's agenda will be the election of a new chairman for the GCC. Speight claims that, stemming from the civilian takeover, all powers of heads of state have been revoked, as has the Constitution of 1997.

The tension between the two camps -- that of Speight and the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara -- is still high. Speight had sent a request to meet with the president, but in his address to the nation last night Ratu Mara was firm in his stance:

"I will not have any dialogue with those who are keeping the parliamentarians hostage, unless they are freed," Ratu Mara said.

Ratu Mara told the nation he had received word that if he did not resign, the armed members of Speight's group would start executing hostages one by one. Ratu Mara said that Speight continues to demand the president step down, but said that was not going to happen. He told the nation that the heads of the department of civil service had been to visit him, to present the sevusevu to pledge their support for him.

Speight unequivocally denied the claim of violence at a meeting with press yesterday:

"As far as my administration is concerned, we are committed to a non-confrontational solution to the impasse that exists between the two parties. This has been our resolve over the past two and a half days since we overthrew the government, and the manner we did so will prove we are committed to safety."

Speight asked the world media to understand the relationships between the opposing sides.

"On both sides of the fence are blood ties that override any confrontational consideration that any scenarios might produce," Speight said.

Two shots were fired last night, but both Speight and the Fiji Military Forces denied that the shots emanated from either of their camps. Speight questioned whether a third party might now be involved.

"I want to assure the world at large and the people in Fiji that my people are highly trained, and that the shots came from somewhere outside," Speight said. There was no confirmation where the shots did, in fact, come from.

Speight held a press conference, inviting local and international media into the parliamentary complex, after he had received notice that Ratu Mara had placed a restriction on the media to stay one kilometer away from Parliament House. This morning Speight questioned Ratu Mara's actions, and encouraged free movement of the press:

"Your presence here today is required," Speight told the media. "Why is he restricting the international and local press to capture images? If he believes he is right he should act accordingly."

In the middle of the night Speight, accompanied by an armed associate, left Parliament to do a tour of the city and review the destruction caused by Friday's looting. Parliamentarians still held captive inside have asked members of the press to describe the situation outside.

Today, many businesses are in the process of cleaning up broken glass and taken stock of their losses. In total 167 stores were looted, and fifteen set ablaze during the riot. Himmat Lodhia, President of the Fiji Retailers Association, said in a press release that while the nation has been set back a few years, the business community -- particularly in Suva -- was the hardest hit. Mr. Lodhia said that though the army and police are now doing their jobs protecting Suva, massive damage has already been done.

"A lot of business people are totally disillusioned with the manner in which law was carried out in the City. Some businessmen are even thinking of closing shop altogether. A few of them are seriously viewing the scaling down of operations. There will be a lot of job losses," Mr. Lodhia wrote.

In related news, the Fiji National Council of Women is coordinating -- alongside women's non-government organizations and civil society partners -- a daily vigil at the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral in Suva. The vigil is in protest of Speight and his armed takeover, demanding a return to democracy.

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