Asia

Meghan and Harry unveil statue of forgotten British-Fijian war hero

Statue of Sergeant Labalaba Image copyright British High Commission Fiji
Image caption Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba was part of the elite Special Air Service (SAS)

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have unveiled a statue of a largely unknown British-Fijian war hero who died in battle after holding off hundreds of enemy soldiers for hours.

Harry and Meghan paid tribute to Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, who saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the Battle of Mirbat in Oman in 1972.

Only eight Fijians have joined the elite Special Air Service (SAS).

The royal couple unveiled the statue at Nadi Airport on Thursday morning.

They are on a 16-day tour of Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand.

'He was a hero'

Sgt Labalaba, who was born in 1942 in Fiji, was recruited into the British army in 1961 and quickly made his way into the SAS.

Known to his colleagues as a "gentle giant", he was part of a team of nine SAS soldiers based outside Mirbat.

They were part of a secret military operation code-named Operation Jaguar and their duty was to protect the Sultan of Oman from a group of Marxist guerrillas known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf.

Image copyright British High Commission Fiji

On 19 July, 1972, a day before they were due to go home, they were attacked.

Knowing the unit was hopelessly outnumbered, Sgt Labalaba ran hundreds of yards to reach a 25-pounder artillery gun which is usually operated by four to six men.

He held out for two and a half hours against at least 250 fighters, repelling wave after wave of attacks. He was shot in the jaw and eventually died when a bullet passed through his neck.

"Laba was exceptional," one of his fellow soldiers told the BBC, "even among the very high standard of the other Fijians in the regiment."

His comrades say that without him, they could not have survived.

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"He was a hero," his son, Isaia Dere, told the Fiji Sun, ahead of the ceremony. saying that he was proud of his father's "bravery and courageous spirit".

In 2009, a statue of Sgt Labalaba was installed at the SAS headquarters in Herefordshire. Calls have long been made for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Prince Harry and Fijian officials including President Jioji Konrote attended the statue's unveiling
Image copyright Reuters

The royal couple left for Tonga shortly after the unveiling of the statue, as they continued their 16-day tour of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.

Fiji was a British colony until 1970.

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