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Paramount chief still held after Wednesday arrest

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, July 23, 2009) – Fiji's military government says the media is exaggerating the issue of arrests of key leaders of the Methodist Church.

Government spokesperson, Lieutenant Colonel Neumi Leweni, on Wednesday confirmed the cancellation of the Church's annual conference planned for August.

He says if the conference covers political issues it would be a clear breach of Fiji's Public Emergency Regulations.

Fiji's interim prime minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama told the Fiji Live website he believed the media was blowing the issue out of proportion.

"I don't know why they're making a big deal out of this because the government and the military have said no and that's where the matter should rest," he said.

"I think it's the press people that are making a big deal out of this."

Among those arrested on Wednesday, are former President of the Fiji Methodist Church, Reverend Manasa Lasaro; General Secretary, Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu, the Secretary for Pastoral Ministry, Tomasi Kanailagi and the Church's Finance Secretary Viliame Gonelevu.

Lieutenant Colonel Leweni says Methodist church leaders who are in custody for questioning will be released once an investigation is complete.

Reverend Waqairatu was also among five Methodist Church leaders and another five lay people, who had also been taken in for questioning by the military regime on Tuesday.

The Church says it is planning to go ahead with the conference regardless of the interim government's stand.

Lieutenant Colonel Leweni says the Chief of Rewa, Ro Teimumu Kepa, had also been arrested and detained over a statement she released Tuesday.

She was picked up late Tuesday night by more than a dozen police officers and escorted to military barracks for questioning.

Since then she has been held in a Suva police station.

Authorities would not tell her family or lawyer what she has been charged with.

A statement from the interim government said she was being investigated for possible incitement.

Ro Teimumu Kepa had urged that the proposed Methodist church conference should still go ahead in her village as planned which is just over a half hour drive from Suva.

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