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Fiji coup plotters gaining support

Two influential ethnic Fijian groups pledged their support today for rebels holding the South Pacific nation's ethnic Indian prime minister and members of his Cabinet hostage in parliament.

Ratu Tevita Bolobolo, leader of the Taukei movement of ethnic Fijians, read a statement that was also endorsed by the main opposition party, known as SVT.

"We do not and we will never accept the reinstatement of the Chaudhry government," Bolobolo said, referring to Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. "We hereby state that we fully support the abolition of the 1997 constitution and warn (President) Ratu Mara that any intervention by force will lead to all-out civil war.

"We the Taukei are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice so as to return this country to the Taukei."

The statement was the first major sign of support for rebel leader and self-appointed new Prime Minister George Speight who launched an armed coup Friday, saying he represented all ethnic Fijians.

The statement was sent to Ratu Mara along with a demand for changes to the constitution so only an indigenous Fijian can hold the offices of prime minister and president and to revert all freehold land to native ownership.

Combined, the Taukei movement and SVP party command strong support among ethnic Fijians who make up 51 percent of the national population of 813,000.

For months, ethnic tensions have been building between indigenous Fijians and the descendants of Indian migrants, who make up about 44 percent of Fiji's population of 813,000.

Earlier, the rebels released 10 hostages after they signed documents backing the coup leader, local radio reported.

"We had to sign the conditions, it was a condition of our release," said John Ali, one of the government members released.

Chaudhry, who was not one of those released, earlier collapsed inside the Parliament House complex. Local media reported that his collapse was stress-related.

Speight allowed doctors in to see Chaudhry after daybreak and he was reportedly given oxygen and was resting under sedation.

Sierra Leone: Rebel chief

to remain in custody

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone _ Sierra Leone's government said Saturday it would not bow to pressure and release rebel chief Foday Sankoh, even though his fighters are holding 334 U.N. peacekeepers hostage.

The rebels have reportedly demanded freedom for Sankoh, who was seized Wednesday and is in government custody at an undisclosed location.

Asked if Sankoh might be released in a bid to end Sierra Leone's renewed conflict, Information Minister Julius Spencer said: "It's out of the question. It's not possible."

The guerrillas have not linked his release to the freedom of the U.N. captives. But they have stopped freeing peacekeepers at their jungle bases.

Elsewhere

YUGOSLAVIA CRACKDOWN: Yugoslav police arrested more government critics Saturday. The independent Beta news agency reported that at least 24 opposition activists were arrested in six towns throughout the country.

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