NEW FIJI COUP PLOT DISCOVERED

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SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 3, 2002 – BBC)---Police in Fiji say they have uncovered a plot to unseat Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and free the jailed indigenous leader, George Speight.

Four men appeared before a magistrates court in the capital, Suva, charged with planning to kidnap Mr. Qarase and the army chief, Frank Bainimarama.

Police named the ringleader as Anare Waqauonovo, a former military officer. Also among the four charged is a cousin of Mr Speight, Varinava Tiko.

The other two men were named as Jo Waqabaca, a former politician; and prominent nationalist Joeli Vesikula. All pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors told the magistrate the defendants posed a serious threat to national security.

The four men were remanded in custody until their next hearing, scheduled for 10 January.

Capital Offense

Mr. Speight is being held on Nukulau Island, a prison facility just off the coast of Suva. Along with a dozen close advisers, the former businessman is expected to stand trial for treason next month.

It is a charge that can carry the death penalty, but there have been no executions in Fiji for more than 30 years.

Fiji has a history of racial unrest with three coups since 1897.

Many indigenous Fijians fear political domination by ethnic Indians -- descendants of plantation workers -- who control much of the islands' sugar and tourism-based economy. Ethnic Indians make up about 44% of Fiji's 800,000 population.

In May 2000, Mr. Speight and an armed gang of nationalists stormed parliament and toppled the government of Fiji's first ethnic-Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry.

Mr. Chaudhry and members of his multi-racial cabinet were held hostage for eight weeks.

The rebels always insisted their actions were carried out in defense of indigenous rights, which they claimed had been eroded by the country's ethnic-Indian minority.

In last September's parliamentary elections -- the first since the coup -- George Speight won the seat of Tailevu North for the hard-line nationalist party, the Conservative Alliance.

He was later dismissed for failing to attend parliamentary sessions.

For additional reports from the BBC, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/BBC News: Asia-Pacific.

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