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Friday, May 19, 2000, updated at 21:20(GMT+8)

Armed Men Stage Coup in Fiji, Seize PM

Armed men Friday staged a dramatic coup in Fiji, storming parliament, seizing Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet, and declaring a new government.

In the morning, the armed men walked into the main chamber of the parliament building, where the parliament session is held, fired warning shots, and told the speaker of the house that they were taking over the government.

Fiji's third coup in 13 years was led by Fijian businessman George Speight, son of an opposition MP, who released a statement claiming he had taken control of the island nation on behalf of indigenous Fijians.

The website later reported that Speight has named Fijian Association Party MP Ratu Timoci Silatolu as Fiji's interim prime minister and Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure as home affairs minister.

Sitiveni Rabuka, Fiji's former prime minister, was reported to have negotiated with Speight on the hostage crisis at the parliament building and was having meeting with the ruling party.

Rabuka led a coup in 1987, and had in recent years spearheaded political reforms that led to the election of the Chaudhry government.

The coup came on the first anniversary of the election of Chaudhry, who Fijian nationalists have accused of promoting pro- Indian policies.

The anniversary was marked by a pro-nationalist march by indigenous Fijians through the streets of the capital Suva, calling for an end to the year-old government.

Meanwhile, mobs of youths began rampaging through Suva's streets and looting businesses, many of which are owned by Fiji's ethnic Indian community.

Thousands of Fijians who took part in an anti-government march through Suva gathered outside the gates of the parliament building, chanting anti-government slogans as the gunmen held MPs hostage inside.

A Fiji radio reporter said the gunmen had set free opposition MPs but had refused to release at least one government MP who had complained of being ill.

Fiji TV reported people were fleeing Suva and many of the protesters were throwing stones and attacking people.

The Fijilive website also reported shops in Suva were on fire and large clouds of smoke were rising over the city.

Coup leader Speight is the American-educated former chairman of Fiji Pine Ltd and Fiji Hardwood Corporation Ltd and had worked in Australia for several years as an insurance broker.

In a statement to the people of Fiji, Speight said he had revoked the constitution and the powers of the president.

"We have executed a civil coup on behalf of the indigenous people of Fiji," he said. "That civil coup has resulted in the overthrow of the Labor-led coalition government in Fiji."

"I would like to announce that Fiji is currently under civilian rule, with the assistance of armed forces, who are passive but will remain at the beck and call and the control of the civilian government that is in place at this time and is headed by myself," he said.

Tension has been building for months in Fiji between minority ethnic Indians, who make up about 44 percent of the island nation' s 813,000 people, and the majority Fijians, who account for 51 percent.

Since last year's election, there has been a groundswell of Fijian nationalist opposition to Chaudhry.

Criticism centered mainly on attempts by Chaudhry, who is of Indian descent, to persuade Fijian landowners to renew expiring leases on farm land held by thousands of ethnic Indian tenants who are the core of his political support.

On April 28, several thousand people rallied against the Chaudhry government in a march organized by opposition politicians of the former ruling Fijian Political Party, which Chaudhry's Labor Party defeated in a May 1999 general election under a new constitution.

Chaudhry's government allowed the protest to proceed.

But earlier this month, Chaudhry's government banned protest marches, saying police had warned they might not be able to cope with large-scale protest marches.

All phone lines into Fiji appeared to have been cut, as they were following the 1987 coups.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia had warned Australians in Suva to remain indoors until the situation became clearer.

While there was no evidence there was any danger to Australians in the Pacific Island country, those in Suva should stay in their homes and away from the parliament building where the prime minister and government members were being held, a spokeswoman said.

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer's office said the Australian consulate was moving to inform Australians in Fiji of the situation.

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Armed men Friday staged a dramatic coup in Fiji, storming parliament, seizing Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet, and declaring a new government.

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