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Chaudhry beaten up, collapses

SUVA, MAY 20. Fiji's ousted Prime Minister, Mr. Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, was beaten and threatened with death today by the self- styled leader of Friday's `coup', Mr. George Speight, who declared himself Prime Minister. Later, Mr. Chaudhry collapsed, according to the Labour Party president, Ms. Jokapeci Koroi.

Ms. Koroi, who along with other Cabinet Ministers is being held hostage in the Parliament house, was allowed by gunmen to brief journalists at the gates of Parliament. She said civilian ambulances were turned away after the gunmen demanded that a military ambulance be sent instead.

Earlier, 20 parliamentary staffers were released, but no politicians, according to the Government-owned Fiji Television.

Radio Fiji said Mr. Chaudhry was hauled off and bashed after he interjected in a radio broadcast from parliament in Suva where he has been held since Mr. Speight - a failed businessman - and a gang of 10 armed men stormed the building Friday morning. Mr. Speight was reported to have held a gun to Mr. Chaudhry's head and threatened to kill him unless he called the President, Mr. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, to order the military away from Parliament.

Fiji Television reported that Mr. Chaudhry - the nation's first ethnic Indian Prime Minister elected exactly a year ago - told Mr. Speight to go ahead and shoot. Mr. Mara issued a warning to Mr. Speight that he would not bow to threats.

``We wish to see the impasse broken and the captives set free but we will not bow down to threats and coercion,'' Mr. Mara said in a broadcast to the nation. The President did not refer directly to the possibility of military action to free Mr. Chaudhry, but said he had held further talks with the armed forces and police.

Mr. Chaudhry has not spoken publicly since the coup but was pushed back inside Parliament by Mr. Speight as he shouted ``we are not legitimising anything'' to local reporters.

The coup leaders were sworn in heads of an interim Government with Mr. Speight, son of a Fiji Opposition MP, declaring himself Prime Minister in a nine-member `cabinet' during a low-key ceremony broadcast on television from the parliament building. Fiji Television said the leaders of the legal Government handed over authority shortly before the swearing in, but only after a gun was held to Mr. Chaudhry's head. It remains unclear how much support Mr. Speight has within Fiji.

The self-anointed Prime Minister told reporters he had been negotiating during the night with former Fiji Prime Minister, Mr. Sitiveni Rabuka, who staged an armed coup and took power in 1987. Mr. Chaudhry defeated Mr. Rabuka with an overwhelming majority in the 71-seat Parliament last May.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Tupeni Baba, earlier urged the military not to launch an action against Parliament to free the 45 hostages, including parliamentary staff, being held. ``We believe that the Army must not be allowed to intervene offensively,'' Mr. Baba said in a statement read with Mr. Speight and Mr. Chaudhry at his side outside the parliament building.

At a news conference earlier today, the military and police pledged their backing for Mr. Mara, who declared Emergency on Friday.

Unfortunate: Vajpayee

In New Delhi, the Prime Minister, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee, described the attempted coup de etat as ``unfortunate'' and hoped democracy would return to the nation as early as possible.

- Reuters, AFP,PTI

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