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'People's' petition launched with big support

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SUVA: A "people's petition" calling for more than 500,000 signatures against the hijacking of democracy in the Fiji Islands by rebel leader George Speight and for the freeing of about 30 hostages has been launched with an "overwhelming" initial response, says the organiser.

Nadi businessman Mick Beddoes said he was confident that the petition denouncing the overthrow of the elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and the abrogation of the 1997 multiracial constitution would reach its target.

According to a Radio Fiji report today, the petition had already received 2500 signatures just hours after fax machines had been connected to receive signed forms.

Beddoes said he believed that a majority - including a "silent majority" - of Fiji Islanders were against Speight's actions.

He said that by signing the petition, it could be established how many people did support Speight and how many were opposed.

His petition has been launched as the country's churches have been making statements opposed to Speight's attempted coup.

The influential Methodist Church, supported by a majority of indigenous Fijians, called for the release of the hostages from Parliament and a protest march was set for the capital of Suva tomorrow.

A movement calling itself the People's Passive Resistance has organised the protest and the petition in a bid to end the 21-day-old hostage crisis and restore the democratically elected government.

Reverend Anil Reuben, head of the Indo-Fijian Methodists, told the local Sunday Times that the church needed to play a "more assertive role" in helping to solve the crisis.

Rev Reuben, divisional superintendent of the church's Indian circuit, was with a group of church leaders who visited Speight and his rebels on Friday.

"I don't believe anyone else can be successful in resolving the issue," he told the newspaper.

"I personally believe that it is the church which can solve it."

Beddoes said: "The actions of George Speight have plunged our country into a crisis situation that is now resulting in thousands of innocent people, who have nothing to so with this illegal action, losing their jobs."

He said that signatures for the petition would be collected until the end of this month.

The petition reads: "We, the peace loving and law-abiding citizens of the Fiji Islands wish to express to the chiefs of the Fiji Islands and the world at large that we do not support the actions of the perpetrators of the May 19 coup, or their stated objectives.

"We do not recognise the abrogation of the Constitution of the Fiji Islands or the removal of our President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and the elected government of Mr Mahendra Chaudhry.

"We support the need to address the concerns of the indigenous people and propose a national referendum of all indigenous Fijians to establish specifically their concerns and needs to be incorporated into the 1997 Constitution of Fiji."

Meanwhile, the military authorities said no Military Tribunal would be set up to try civilians under martial law.

"The police have been allowed to continue their normal law enforcement duties and investigations, the judiciary has not been tampered with, and the bureaucracy has been allowed to continue, with the occasional guidance from the military authorities." the army said in a statement.

It said the form of martial law adopted in Fiji had been modified to suit and accommodate the country's unique socio-political and cultural system.

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