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Fiji rebel backers kill 2 in apparent ambush

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SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Supporters of Fiji's coup rebels shot and killed two officers and injured three others in an apparent ambush Tuesday outside the capital, the military said.

Authorities were investigating whether a joint army and police patrol was deliberately lured into a trap on the outskirts of Suva, where gunmen opened fire without warning, military spokesman Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini said.

If it was an ambush, the attack would represent a significant escalation in tension between the military and supporters of coup leader George Speight. His supporters were continuing to stir civil unrest in isolated pockets of the South Pacific island nation.

Tarakinikini said a patrol of 10 men was sent to investigate a report that an armed gang had fired shots from a vehicle six miles from Suva.

When the patrol approached a parked pickup truck, gunfire erupted from nearby jungle, triggering a brief gunfight, Tarakinikini said. One soldier and one policeman died. Three other officers were injured.

Tarakinikini said the gang's members were believed to be Speight supporters.

Speight and his inner circle of 12 supporters are in custody on an island off Suva. He has been charged with minor offenses but could face treason charges that might bring him the death penalty.

Speight, a failed businessman, led an armed gang into Parliament on May 19 and took dozens of lawmakers hostage. The last of them were freed after two months once the military agreed to an amnesty for the rebels, discarded the multiracial constitution and ousted the government.

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

Ethnic Indian Fijians — whose ancestors were brought here in the 1870s by British colonialists as indentured laborers — make up 44 percent of the nation's 814,000 people and dominate business and commerce.

The hostage-taking cast Fiji into turmoil and brought international condemnation and sanctions.

On Monday, the military said it was hunting about 100 rebels suspected of spreading terror in the wake of a May coup. Authorities were also searching for more than 25 military weapons that have been missing since the coup.