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27 July, 2005 - Published 14:36 GMT

Debbie Ransome
BBC Caribbean Service

Trinidad coup attempt - 15 years on

Fifteen years ago an attempted coup by radical muslims threw Trinidad and Tobago into chaos. Debbie Ransome, head of the BBC Caribbean Service who was a reporter in the firing zone in Port of Spain gives her personal reflections.

I was a news agency correspondent in Trinidad when the bomb went off on July 27th, 1990 and changed the next six days of my life.

With hindsight, I might say it's not always smart to look in your rear view mirror or to be too nosey.

But that's what I did and I drove back to become an eyewitness to what was one of the most turbulent six days in independent Trinidad and Tobago's political history.

When I look back, even the description of what took place on July 27th 1990 varies - Rebel uprising....attempted coup...Jamaat-al-Muslimeen insurgence...all those descriptions point to the confusion of those six days and the period afterwards.

Was it a coup? Was it an uprising? Was there an amnesty for the rebels? Who'd agreed to it? Was the government divided over offering an amnesty?

Police HQ explodes

There were many sides to the story – the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen members who had blown up Police Headquarters in the Trinidadian capital, Port of Spain, called for fresh elections and the resignation of the Prime Minister.

In the immediate confusion that Friday evening after the explosion, armed members of the group had taken over the Red House during the Friday afternoon sitting of the lower house of Parliament (House of Representatives).

By the time the dust literally settled after that initial explosion just after 5pm, only a few things were clear – the Muslimeen had taken over the parliament building and were holding Prime Minister ANR Robinson, members of government, opposition MPs, and parliamentary building staff hostage. They'd also stormed and taken hostage staff at the state-run television station.

It took nearly two hours before even this was clear.

Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr appeared on state television, sitting alongside the station's Head of News and announced his takeover.

If it hadn't been for the guns being held by the people in the studio, a first glance made it look more like a new co-presentation format at Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT).

I had driven back and, staying alongside the walls of buildings as bullets flew around the usually peaceable Abercrombie Street, I edged back to my office which had a bird's eye view of the Red House.

That gave me a ringside seat at what was to be a six-day hostage crisis and stand-off between the Muslimeen and Trinidadian armed forces.

It also left me stuck sleeping on the desk in my office, with the company of the Trinidad Guardian journalists who chose to stay when we were given a Saturday afternoon option to evacuate the area which was then cordoned off.

Amnesty?

What comes back to mind about those six days was the level of confusion. Was there an amnesty? Prime Minister ANR Robinson told me so in an interview just hours into the crisis but then I knew that he was one of many hostages being held at gunpoint within the parliament building.

Beyond our cordoned-off area, some voices apparently in authority not only refused to discuss an amnesty but also wanted us, the journalists, to shut up about it.

It was during the surrender that I learnt to respect the discipline of Trinidad's Defence Forces.

Despite any individual soldier's anger at the attempted coup and the image this group had created for Trinidad to the outside world, these soldiers lay there – on the roof terrace of the country’s Hall of Justice building, guns trained - but holding strain, as ordered.

I lay between them looking down as the Muslimeen first released their hostages and then surrendered one-by-one.

After the surrender came the charges of treason against the Muslimeen. But they complained that they had an amnesty.

They seemed to have no copies, though, after being searched by soldiers following the surrender. So then the pressure turned on the journalists who had reported the existence of an amnesty.

In the days between the surrender and the emergence of other copies of the amnesty, some of us as reporters faced questioning of our very integrity as journalists.

Even swapping a hard desk for my bed at home didn't make up for the pressure I had to live with at the time as one of the first people to interview Prime Minister Robinson about the amnesty.

But the Prime Minister had been hospitalised and officialdom's first reaction had been to cast doubt on the journalists' story.

Privy Council decision

Then copies of the amnesty emerged and the whole story went to trial – an amnesty signed by the acting President and upheld by the Privy Council in London, the final appeal court for many Commonwealth Caribbean countries.

The court freed the Muslimeen from charges of treason and from facing the death penalty.

By that time, I'd become a producer at BBC's Caribbean Service and, guess what? The BBC asked me to go to the grand surroundings of the Privy Council in Downing Street.

Somehow, the events outlined at that court by lawyers in wigs and gowns talking of events which had taken place thousands of miles away could barely match the reality I'd witnessed: the days when a part of Port of Spain had been in flames, bullets were flying, and an uncertainty had put a whole country on hold for six days.