FIJI POLICE DROP CHARGES AGAINST KEY FIGURE IN ALLEGED PM KIDNAP BID

SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 4 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---Authorities in troubled Fiji dropped major charges against a key rebel who (with three others) was arrested this week and charged with conspiring to kidnap the nation’s leaders.

The latest move underlines the erratic and increasingly unstable nature of the country, which has had three constitutions since 1970 and three coups since 1987.

Local radio reports that police have mounted new roadblocks on the major links between Suva and Nausori, to the north, which is part of the Tailevu province from where 2000 coup plotter George Speight comes from.

The latest drama to strike Fiji came on Thursday when four men were arrested on charges related to an alleged plot to kidnap Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, military head Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama and other leaders.

Police allege Qarase and the others were to have been traded for the freedom of Speight, who is in custody on an island near here facing treason charges.

The four men arrested are all Speight supporters. Varinava Tiko, who is Speight's cousin, and three others, Anare Papu Waqavonovono, Josaia Waqabaca and Koroi Vesikula, are charged with conspiracy to commit felony, including kidnapping.

However, late Friday authorities said they were dropping charges against Tiko after his wife, Sala Tiko, told the Daily Post newspaper that she had a tape recording of her husband’s alleged meeting with Waqavonovono on New Year’s Day.

She said the arrests were a set up, saying some unknown men arrived in her village of Korovou on New Year’s Day and told him of the plot against the prime minister.

"They said they had all the wheels in motion and they needed him to provide the weapons," Sala Tiko said.

She said her husband refused to take part, believing it was a military trap to find the missing weapons.

On the tape recording Tiko is heard refusing to be part of the plot.

While Fiji is described as a nation in conflict between its indigenous Fijians, who make up 51 percent of the 800,000 people, and the 44 percent ethnic Indians, the latest drama is within Fijian ranks and stems from Speight's failed bid for power.

Speight and a band of special forces soldiers seized parliament on May 19, 2000, taking the year-old administration of then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his government hostage for 56 days.

Ten days later Bainimarama declared martial law, eventually replacing Chaudhry with Qarase.

Last September Qarase's political party won general elections and he became the democratic prime minister.

In that election the jailed Speight won the parliamentary seat of Tailevu North but was stripped of his seat for failing to attend Parliament.

On July 8, 2000, at the height of the Speight coup, his supporters in Tailevu, led by Tiko, seized the province's main town, Korovou, taking soldiers and police hostage and seizing arms.

They eventually surrendered peacefully. Tiko was arrested. Later charges of unlawful assembly against him were dropped.

Police allege Tiko and the other three plotted the latest kidnapping bid to have Speight released from jail before his treason trial starts, which begins in the High Court next month.

Increasing the tension, a week before the trial starts, the Fiji Court of Appeal will hold hearings on the legality of Qarase's government, which has failed to include members of Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party in its Cabinet as the constitution appears to require.

The new drama represents a heavy blow to Qarase's bid to salvage Fiji's battered economy.

Symptomatic of the problems facing Fiji, Thursday's alleged conspiracy was not the only one being talked about. Former soldiers were also rumored to be preparing to seize Qarase over a pay row.

Around 4,000 soldiers are taking legal action seeking $F 400 million Fiji (US$ 172 million) paid to Fiji by the United Nations for its involvement in peacekeeping operations.

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/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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