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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (Dec. 29, 2000 – Agence France-Presse)---The joke used to be that thanks to the "coconut wireless" nothing was ever secret in the South Pacific but its emerging that during this year's Fiji coup spies, special forces soldiers and some very sophisticated transnational monitoring were at work too.

A top political source outside Fiji told AFP they had a unique view inside both the Fiji coup plotters and the Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) and as a result they knew much more about what was going on that even now has come out.

"If you could see what came across my desk you would have a different view of it all," the source, who did not want to be identified, said.

It was thanks to a U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) communications spying system known as "Echelon" that gave the Canberra and Wellington its insights.

The coconut wireless -- an informal system of moving gossip and news -- was alive in the days up to May 19 of a pending coup in Fiji.

Sources told AFP none of the intelligence services knew with any certainty that Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his first ethnic Indian led Fiji government would be attacked on that day by failed businessman George Speight and a former British Special Air Services (SAS) soldier, Ilisoni Ligairi.

But within an hour of the assault one top New Zealand government official off-the-record said that what was really happening in Fiji was that it was a coup actually led by Police Commissioner Isikia Savua.

A subsequent behind-closed-doors Fiji government inquiry has cleared Savua of involvement but questions remain over why he let a riot in Suva get out of hand during the first hour of the coup.

This was the first Vodafone coup. Fiji's only mobile phone operator, jointly owned by the multinational along with National Provident Fund owned Fiji Telecoms, ended up providing all the players with cell phones, usually the ubiquitous bright orange pre-paid unit.

Legal sources say authorities now have the complete list of everybody the coup plotters called, and those who called them, before and after May 19. Intelligence services outside Fiji also have the lists and despite digital encryption by Vodafone, they were listening, a diplomatic source said.

This is illustrated in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini, an RFMF spokesman.

Last month, during a military mutiny, New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said he believed Tarakinikini had in fact played a key role in the May 19 coup. Tarakinikini denied it and threatened to sue and Goff, while holding his ground, was unable to release any evidence for his statement.

Sources say the "convincing" evidence cannot be released as it came via the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) which on its own website (http://www.gcsb.govt.nz) says "secret foreign intelligence is of continuing importance to New Zealand, both representing a valuable component in the policy-making processes of Government and making a significant contribution to our national security."

GCSB operates a large international telecoms spying operation at Waihopai in the South Island, which shares Pacific spying duties with Australia's Defence Signals Directorate's (http://www.dsd.gov.au)  Geraldton base and is linked into the NSA and Echelon.

New Zealand author Nicky Hager, who has written a book on Echelon, says the system "has proved especially useful against already vulnerable South Pacific nations which do not use any coding, even for government communications."

Echelon, which in short is a vast dictionary of key words, intercepts e-mail, fax, telex, and telephone communications carried over the world's telecommunications networks and is aimed at non-military targets including governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals.

The French National Assembly and the European Union are inquiring into Echelon.

In Fiji's first 1987 coup then New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange ordered the SAS into Fiji, aiming to free an Air New Zealand Boeing 747, which was being held at Nadi by a lone hijacker. The military balked at the order because of its close ties with the RFMF and the inability of New Zealand to sustain a long distance military operation alone.

A military source told AFP that this time a few members of the New Zealand SAS were in Fiji during the first stages of the hostage crisis, keeping a low profile because many of them had trained with Ligairi in Hereford, England, the headquarters of the British SAS.

They were not involved in the coup or hostage operations but preparing for possible evacuation of foreign nationals.

One of the more amusing sides of the spy operation in Fiji was a group of mysterious men -- usually around six or seven -- who stayed in the same hotel with the hordes of journalists. Word was put around that they were Australian security experts there to protect foreigners.

But that was not their mission: representing a galaxy of international agencies from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to the Australian Federal Police the coup was a blessing as they used it as cover while they tracked, and eventually seized, around 500 million U.S. dollars worth of heroin originally intended for the Sydney Olympics market but that had got stuck in Suva.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/ 

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