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June 19, 2000 


SUVA, Fiji (AP) - Fiji's military rulers and coup leader George Speight spent Sunday locked in talks, raising hopes of progress in efforts to end a 31-day hostage crisis.


But hope for a swift return to multiethnic rule in Fiji remains slim - the military says that will take at least two years - and the Pacific nation is watching its long-term economic well-being ebb

away as the crisis drags on.


The latest round of negotiations lasted all day Sunday. The talks are focusing on the makeup of an interim government and the release of the hostages rather than restoring democracy.


Sunday's meetings, held at the vice president's official residence in the capital of Suva, marked the first time Speight has ventured outside parliament since his car was sprayed with gunfire on June 12 by soldiers manning a roadblock.


The talks broke up late Sunday and were to resume Monday afternoon, Speight spokesman Jo Nata said. Neither side commented on the talks.


Failed businessman Speight and an armed gang claiming to be fighting for the rights of Fiji's indigenous majority are holding 31hostages in parliament including deposed Prime Minister Mahendra

Chaudhry and other members of his government.


Speight seeks a new government that denies the ethnic Indian minority political power. Resentment is high among Fijians against the large Indian minority that dominates business.


Sugar, the nation's cash crop, is at the core of Fiji's troubles.


Indian farmers built the industry by operating plantations on land communally owned by indigenous Fijians and leased at low rates set by English colonial law.


Those leases are due to be renewed, and the government's refusal to accept demands for higher rent enraged many Fijians.


On Saturday, the country's military rulers said Speight's group would be represented on a committee being formed to redraw Fiji's constitution - a process aimed at stripping ethnic Indians of

political power.


"They are there to represent the cause they stood up for," military spokesman Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini said. "They must be given a fair hearing."


Tarakinikini also said a number of people nominated by Speight to serve on an interim civilian administration were "acceptable" to the military, which seized control 10 days after Speight's May 19



The military regime's plan is for the interim government to oversee the recasting of the constitution, then hold a general election. The process would take about two years.


Speaking at a church service Sunday in Suva, Chaudhry's wife Virmati Chaudhry, said she was praying for him and their son, Rajendhra, who is also a lawmaker and a hostage.


"The Lord has saved me and I know that he will save my family," Virmati Chaudhry said, adding that she would forgive Speight for kidnapping them.


Fiji's economy, which besides sugar is also based on garment exports and tourism, is in a tailspin.


Tourist arrivals for the first 15 days of June were down by 65 percent over the same period last year, the Fiji Visitors Bureau said Sunday. Before the coup, about 1,500 people were arriving in Fiji each day. That number has now dropped to about 400.


Trying to press for a return to democracy, Australian labor unions are refusing to handle cargo arriving from or bound for Fiji. New Zealand unions are planning similar action.


An employers group says more than 4,100 people have already lost their jobs - many in the garment manufacturing industry which is being starved of raw materials and cut off from its biggest market

by Australian union action.


Economists say Fiji stands to lose 200 million Fiji dollars (U.S. dlrs 100 million) in government revenue as a result of the coup.


Fijian unions have organized strikes that are crippling Fiji's crucial sugar cane harvest.


Cane cutters began drifting back to work this week but as they did, workers at a major cane crushing plant stopped work. Chaudhry is a former sugar industry union leader and still commands strong

support in the industry.


The United States, Australia and New Zealand have said they will slap sanctions on Fiji, a cluster of islands about 3,620 kilometers (2,250 miles) northeast of Sydney, Australia, if it does not return

to full democracy.


Speight says international condemnation is a price Fijians are willing to pay for political supremacy.


"Democracy will be dead when we are finished here," Speight said Saturday.


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