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Rebel backer named Fiji v.p.

Move opens way for Speight to fill new Cabinet spots

SHARE Rebel backer named Fiji v.p.

SUVA, Fiji — Pressured by threats of more unrest, Fiji's tribal chiefs picked a rebel supporter as vice president Friday, opening the way for backers of coup leader George Speight to fill Fiji's new Cabinet.

The rebels handed in their weapons Friday, in accordance with a deal that led to the release Thursday of the hostages they had held in Parliament since May 19. Still, Speight's rebels clearly hold sway over the future government, which will play a large role in writing the new constitution.

At Speight's behest, the Great Council of Chiefs, Fiji's traditional power, named Ratu Josefa Iloilo as president Thursday. For the vice president post, they deferred to Speight's wishes again and appointed Ratu Jope Seniloli Friday.

The chiefs left it to Iloilo to name the new government — without outside influence, the chiefs underlined. Still, he is expected to fill the slots with Speight supporters.

"I think we have just resolved the crisis we have been in," said Sitiveni Rabuka, chairman of the chiefs' council.

Speight says he was acting on behalf of indigenous Fijians when he and an armed gang raided parliament on May 19, took dozens of lawmakers hostage and demanded the country's large ethnic Indian minority be stripped of political power.

The chiefs have through complicity supported Speight's campaign for indigenous superiority but have not endorsed his method.

Rabuka, a former military officer who led two coups in 1987 and was later elected prime minister, conceded that the crisis had left Fiji badly damaged, and Speight's victory was in some ways hollow.

"Nobody wins a coup," said Rabuka.

"The whole nation suffers. He is free to enjoy his self-perceived victory," he said.

The hostage crisis ended Thursday when Speight released his last captives — deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and 17 other legislators — after striking a deal with the military Sunday. The deal grants his group amnesty and gave him influence in the chiefs meeting.

After the hostage crisis, Fiji is a vastly changed country. The elected government is gone, ethnic tensions remain inflamed and the crucial tourist industry is ravaged. The United States, Australia and New Zealand have urged their citizens to leave and have threatened sanctions.

Even after releasing the hostages, the rebels maintained pressure on the chiefs by issuing thinly veiled threats that civil strife would continue.

"If we get into power, we will call off the dogs," rebel spokesman Jo Nata told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Tensions eased after the military announced it had handed executive authority to Iloilo and lifted a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Defying renewed warnings that Fiji will become an international pariah if rebels are included in the government, Speight said his campaign will not be complete until his men are in power. And he warned that any attempt to restore multiracial democracy would result in another civil uprising.

"Any attempt by anybody to return Fiji to the status quo before May 19 will be met with the same resistance we showed to the army of this country," Speight told Australia's Nine Network TV.

Speight's rebels are indigenous Fijians who said the Indian minority had too much power. They demanded that the country's multiracial constitution be scrapped and that Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, be deposed.

In the days after parliament's seizure, Speight supporters looted and burned ethnic Indian homes and businesses, and many Indians made plans to flee the country.

The unrest escalated last week, when Speight supporters occupied several police stations and other key installations, surrounded the capital, Suva, with roadblocks and threatened to shut down the airports.

The Australian government said Friday it would "absolutely not" accept Speight or any of his men as members of Fiji's new government.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said for the chiefs to bow to Speight's demands "has been to betray the democratic institutions of Fiji."