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Fiji coup leader arraigned in court

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SUVA, Fiji — The leader of a coup in Fiji and 12 of his rebels appeared in a heavily guarded court Saturday to face some lesser charges linked the seizure of Parliament in May.

The charges against George Speight and the others included illegal weapons possession and unlawful assembly. They are also accused of illegally burying a fellow rebel who was killed in a gun battle.

Speight also faces the far more serious charge of treason and could be executed if convicted. An investigation into that allegation is still under way.

The charges leveled on Saturday make clear that prosecutors have disregarded an amnesty promised to Speight and his supporters.

Speight did not enter pleas during the initial stages of the hearing and said nothing.

Speight, a failed businessman, led a group of gunmen into Parliament on May 19 and held dozens of officials for two months until the military met demands for an amnesty, eliminating the multiracial constitution and ousting the existing government.

Speight claimed that ethnic Indian Fijians have too much power and threaten indigenous Fijian culture.

The hostage standoff cast Fiji into turmoil and sparked international condemnation of the South Pacific nation's abandonment of democracy.

Raids, hostage-taking, theft, beatings and arson have become commonplace in small ethnic Indian-dominated rural communities across Fiji since the coup.

His court appearance came the day after the military extended a deadly crackdown on his supporters on Fiji's second-largest island, Vanua Levu.

As of late Friday, the military had killed one rebel supporter and arrested 125 in an operation to restore law and order to the island, a stronghold of Speight support.

Military and police vehicles escorted the prison bus that carried the rebels from their island jail to the court for their arraignment.

Army marksmen patrolled the roof of the courthouse and soldiers cordoned off the building for the hearing.

At least one rebel in the dock at Suva Magistrate's court had his head bandaged, believed to be because of an injury sustained while he was arrested.

Speight his key advisers had been jailed for more than a week without facing a magistrate.