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New government takes oath in Fiji

Cabinet has no close supporters of coup leader

SHARE New government takes oath in Fiji

SUVA, Fiji — Fiji's president swore in a new Cabinet amid tight security on Friday, moving to restore calm in the Pacific nation that has been in turmoil since a May coup.

Although the new government was strongly pro-indigenous Fijian, it includes no close supporters of coup leader George Speight, whose siege — waged in the name of ethnic Fijian rights — unleashed a wave of civil unrest.

At a ceremony at Borron House, a colonial mansion overlooking Suva harbor, respected banker Laisenia Qarase was sworn in as prime minister and pledged to strengthen indigenous Fijians' grip on power.

In an address to the nation, Qarase promised a government of "moderation, inclusion and compassion" that guaranteed indigenous Fijians a "special place in our society."

"Fijians do not seek pre-eminency as an expression of racial superiority," Qarase said. "Their motivation is to ensure the survival of a small and distinct race."

The 20-member Cabinet does not include any members of Fiji's large ethnic Indian minority, although Indo-Fijian George Raj holds a junior ministerial post.

Qarase said he asked ethnic Indians to join, but they declined, fearing for their safety.

Qarase's government replaces that of Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first prime minister of Indian descent, which was toppled by the coup.

Speight, a failed businessman, led a group of indigenous Fijians who stormed Parliament on May 19 and held dozens of officials for two months. The army took power 10 days after the raid and finally met rebel demands for an amnesty, discarding the multiracial constitution and ousting Chaudhry's government. The last of the hostages were released last week in exchange.

The rebels claim that ethnic Indians have too much power and are threatening Fijian culture.

They were first brought to Fiji in the 1870s by British colonialists as indentured laborers and now make up 44 percent of Fiji's 814,000 population and dominating business and commerce.

Australia, New Zealand and the United States are among nations that have imposed sanctions and demanded a restoration of democracy.

Qarase dismissed suggestions that his government was illegitimate and said he would soon name a commission to rewrite the multiracial constitution, a forerunner to elections in about three years.

Speight had demanded that the Cabinet be stacked with his followers. But his threats of further unrest were short-circuited when he was arrested Wednesday for allegedly threatening the life of President Ratu Josefa Iloilo. He could face a treason charge.

On Thursday, troops raided Speight's stronghold in the capital, arresting more than 350 supporters. The crackdown continued Friday, when military authorities arrested two more key Speight supporters.

"He should be charged for helping to overthrow a properly elected government, he should spend a long time behind bars," said Industrial Relations Minister Ratu Tevita Momoedonu, one of two members of Chaudhry's government in the new administration.

There were only two known reprisals for Speight's arrest. Rebels briefly took dozens of ethnic Indians hostage on Thursday and two New Zealand pilots were held overnight and then freed.

Qarase warned Chaudhry against setting up an alternative government within Fiji — an idea Chaudhry floated last week.

"For them to set up a self-proclaimed government would be a direct challenge to the executive authority of the president," Qarase said. "If they persist with it, they will be dealt with according to law."