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Rebel leader takes credit for delay of Fiji’s Cabinet

SHARE Rebel leader takes credit for delay of Fiji’s Cabinet

SUVA, Fiji — The swearing-in of Fiji's new Cabinet was indefinitely postponed Wednesday, and rebel leader George Speight claimed credit — raising the prospect of an already ethnically intolerant government taking on an even more extreme leaning.

Also Wednesday, local media reported that Fiji's recently ousted government is considering setting up a separate state. Many of the ousted officials are ethnic Indians, a group that faces discrimination and loss of political power under the new administration here.

In Suva, the capital, the swearing-in ceremony was canceled five minutes before it was supposed to start. The stated reason was that new President Ratu Josefa Iloilo was feeling "ill disposed," but it was clear that behind-the-scenes maneuvering was the real reason for the delay.

Speight, the rebel leader, launched a coup in May and held the old government hostage for two months while demanding disenfranchisement of Fiji's large ethnic Indian minority and political superiority for indigenous Fijians. Now he wants greater representation for indigenous Fijians in the new Cabinet, even though the lineup already contains several of his supporters and no ethnic Indians.

Speight said he was not adequately consulted on the Cabinet lineup.

"I have been in touch with the president through a high-ranking chief of mine to express my disappointment," Speight told Australian television's Channel Nine shortly before the ceremony was canceled. He said Iloilo agreed to allow him to review the list of prospective ministers and that the ceremony would not proceed.

The new ministers who did show up for their swearing-in were left to mill about under a tarpaulin sheltering them from heavy rain and munch on cakes supposed to be eaten in celebration after the new administration's installation.

Details of Iloilo's condition could not be verified. The frail 80-year-old tribal chief, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, was sworn in as president Tuesday.

The delay came as signs of civil unrest cropped up once again in this Pacific nation.

Speight supporters torched nine vehicles in apparent anger at the Cabinet lineup announced Tuesday, and there was a peaceful sit-in at the airport in the town of Savu Savu. Asked if the sit-in was related to Speight, military spokesman Maj. Howard Politini said: "Everything is related to Speight."

Speight and his indigenous Fijian rebels stormed Parliament and took several dozen members of the former government hostage on May 19. Demanding that the ethnic Indian prime minister be deposed and the constitution altered to strip ethnic Indians of political power, they held out for almost two months as Fiji descended into civil unrest and the military took power.

The last 18 hostages were freed last week after the military leaders agreed to a new government and constitution. They also granted Speight and his men immunity.

The demise of democracy in Fiji prompted Australia and New Zealand to impose sanctions and other nations are expected to follow suit.

Ethnic Indians make up 44 percent of Fiji's 814,000 people but dominate the economy in Fiji, a nation of 320 islands about 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. Since the coup, ethnic Indians here have been living in fear, and many have made plans to flee the country.

Local media reported that members of the ousted government would meet Thursday to discuss setting up a separate state in the economically powerful west of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. The idea of forming a breakaway state in the region was discussed but rejected by local tribal chiefs about six weeks ago.

In another development Wednesday, Speight finally moved out of Parliament, where he had been living since the coup. He set up camp at a school in a nearby village.