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Fiji rebel leader wants ‘crusader’ label, not ‘thug’

SHARE Fiji rebel leader wants ‘crusader’ label, not ‘thug’

SUVA, Fiji — George Speight, the man who led Fiji's coup and took the prime minister and dozens of legislators hostage for two months, is trying to remake his image.

Relaxing at poolside with his closest supporters and advisers between political meetings Friday, he told The Associated Press that he no longer wants to be called a rebel, a terrorist, or a thug — even as he called on indigenous peoples to unite and join forces with Australia's Aborigines to disrupt the Olympic Games in Sydney in September.

Those labels are just some of the tags, some unprintable, attached to him while he has been trumpeting the cause of guaranteeing superiority for indigenous Fijians.

"Our desires and our objectives and our wishes for our future in our country cannot be denied and must be respected, regardless of how unconstitutional and undemocratic it might be to everyone else," Speight said, unrepentant about throwing out Fiji's 1997 multiracial constitution and disenfranchising ethnic Indians.

Though unwelcome in Australia and New Zealand, Speight has an amnesty for his actions at home and claims he only reflects public opinion. Therefore, he now wants to be known as a "crusader for Fijian rights."

In Friday's interview, he acted more like a rock star with a posse, wearing sunglasses indoors for breakfast, then relaxing for photographers and holding court on everything from his hopes of spreading his message in the Pacific to how his golf game has probably suffered after so much time away from the links.

Speight's very appearance at the Centra Hotel, where most foreign journalists have been staying, was something of a shock and reflects efforts to transform his persona from dangerous man to astute politico, with suggestions of legal action against those who keep calling him a rebel.

Aware of the media's influence in his battle for support, Speight frequently had made himself available at parliament, which he and his men stormed May 19 and grabbed hostages. He freed his last 18 captives July 13 as part of a deal that will strip the political power of ethnic Indians, who comprise 44 percent of 814,000 population but dominate the economy. -->

In the wake of the coup, Britain on Friday joined Australia, New Zealand and the United States in imposing sanctions on the Pacific nation to force it to return to democracy. The Foreign Office in London announced the cancellation of its assistance programs to Fiji and planned military visits, as well as export licenses for some military equipment.

Speight and his supporters moved out of parliament Thursday and set up camp in a primary school complex seven miles away, but few reporters were willing to make the trip to a place where security looked even more dicey.

So Speight stopped first Friday morning at a coffee shop, where he quickly drew attention, then headed for the Centra, where the militancy in his message seemed a little less strident, even if the gist of it wasn't.

"I am going to make a call to all ethnic people in the South Pacific to stand up and exert their rights," Speight told the AP. "It's quite possible we could disrupt the whole Olympic Games with our aboriginal brothers."

Australian police and Olympic authorities declined comment on the threat, and an Aboriginal leader said she had not contacted Speight on the matter and described his joining planned Aboriginal protests as "highly unlikely."

Although Speight has vowed to fade into the background once a Fijian government acceptable to him is seated, his clear love of the spotlight makes that too seem highly unlikely.

Rumors have been flying about what's going on behind the scenes since new President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the frail 80-year-old tribal chief with Parkinson's disease, indefinitely postponed the swearing in of a new Cabinet on Tuesday. Speight compared it to a water polo match, where most of the action takes place unseen underwater.

Iloilo went on national radio Friday to appeal for unity, amid increasing turmoil in Fiji and prospects that rival governments could emerge. The official reason for the delay was Iloilo's illness, but it also appeared that Speight had managed to orchestrate a boycott by some new ministers allied with him.

Rumors include the possibility of a second coup — there were two in 1987 when many of the same issues came up — with Speight becoming the country's leader this time, as Sitiveni Rabuka — one of Speight's old golf partners, managed after his second takeover 13 years ago.