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Fiji army preaches peace in rebel stronghold
LABASA, Fiji (Reuters) -- Fijian villagers in a former hotbed of civil unrest say the army is winning back hearts and minds from nationalist rebel leader George Speight, now awaiting trial for treason.
This weekend ethnic Indian and indigenous Fijian families shared food in traditional ceremonies of reconciliation after weeks of pro-rebel protests on the Pacific nation's northern island of Vanua Levu.
The island was once dubbed "The Friendly North" for its harmonious inter-racial relations. But many Indians fled their homes for fear of violence after Speight stormed parliament in May and effectively deposed an ethnic Indian-led government.
Last month the army cracked down, arresting Speight on the main island of Viti Levu and detaining supporters, including soldiers who had mutinied at Vanua Levu's Labasa barracks.
"The army's presence has brought joy to the families, especially the ladies and kids," said ethnic Indian Ramesh Chand, who has just emerged from hiding to return to his rice farm in Dreketi, outside Labasa.
"It's nice to have the kids back to school and life slowly coming back to normal," Chand told Reuters on Sunday.
Economic pain has helped the army to win over former rebel sympathizers. Many Fijian families have lost their main sources of income after weeks of unrest devastated the country's tourism industry and disrupted the sugar harvest.
Soldiers charged over mutiny
Army spokesman Major Howard Politini told Reuters six soldiers would appear in court next Friday on charges linked to the six-week-long mutiny at the Labasa barracks.
But the army has also sent public relations teams into villages around Vanua Levu to try to persuade people, including influential tribal elders, that the crackdown is necessary.
"The chiefs are pleading with the people to accept the military presence," Ratu (chief) Waisea Kaponivere told Reuters.
Villagers say it was not Speight who inspired the unrest on Vanua Levu but his main adviser Ilisoni Ligairi, who comes from the island and is widely respected there.
Ligairi was among 16 supporters charged along with Speight on Friday with treason, which carries the death penalty.
On Sunday the military said it was still combing thick bushland on Viti Levu for a gang suspected of shooting dead a soldier and policeman last week in the worst act of violence since Speight's attempted coup.
Speight held then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and most of his multi-racial cabinet hostage in the name of indigenous Fijian rights for 56 days.
The rebels won a series of concessions before freeing their
hostages last month, effectively ending the political influence of Indians who make up 44 percent of Fiji's 800,000 population.
The new, military-backed interim government led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and made up almost entirely of indigenous Fijians will rule for up to three years.
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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