A group of disgruntled noncommissioned officers seized control of the former Dutch colony of Surinam in northeast South America yesterday after an eight-hour battle, according to reports reaching Washington and The Hague.
Unconfirmed reports said as many as 15 persons may have been killed in the fighting, and one Cabinet minister reported wounded. The insurgent sergeants said the Army commander, Col. Yngwe Elstak, and Police Minister Soerdijpersad Badrising had been taken into custody.
A statement issued by a group calling itself the National Military Council, reportedly representing about 300 members of the 800-man Army, said the soldiers staged the coup because the government would not recognize their trade union.
According to eyewitness reports, automatic-weapons and bazooka fire broke out in the early morning hours at Army headquarters. A Navy patrol boat shelled the police headquarters, setting it afire, the reports said.
The Dutch news agency ANP said a soldier and policeman were killed in shooting at the Memre Bockoe Army barracks in Paramaribo, the capital. Two persons were reported killed in the attack on police headquarters, military officers said.
One report, cited by Reuter news agency, said Prime Minister Henck Arron was in the police headquarters when the rebellion started, but that his whereabouts later in the day were unknown. The rebels' statement said they were searching for Arron, whom they blamed for "the chaos in the country."
Surinam, about the size of Georgia, borders Guyana and French Guiana. It is the world's fourth-largest exporter of bauxite, and supplies the United States with about a quarter of its annual imports of the aluminum ore.
The former Dutch colony received its independence from the Netherlands in November 1975, and was guaranteed about $1.5 billiion in aid from The Hague for the first decade of independence.
Despite what observers have called good progress, by Third World standards, toward reaching political and economic stablity, about one-third of the new nation's population -- once estimated at 450,000, but now said by some to be closer to 300,000 -- left their homeland and settled in the Netherlands to take advantage of the social welfare system there.
Arron and the main opposition leader, Jaggernath Lachmon, recently agreed to hold early elections at the end of March to break up a political logjam that resulted after Arron's parliamentary majority had slipped to one seat in the 39-member assembly. Surinam's politics traditionally have been colored by ethnic politics but a clear move away from this trend was noted after the last elections, in November 1977.
Surinam's population is roughly 30 percent Creole, or urban black; 35 percent East Indian; 15 percent Indonesian, and smaller groups of Chinese, Lebanese, Portuguese, Dutch, Amerindian and descendents of black slaves who live in the interior.
There were no indications that yesterday's coup had any racial, or for that matter, political, overtones. U.S. sources in Washington said the rebel soldier appeared to have no particular ideological bent.
One source expressed some doubt that the mutinous troops would be able to establish any lasting control over the government, and suggested that what may have started out as a protest action to redress grievances simply got out of control as violence increased.
Observers said they were aware of the dissidents' grievances -- which included lack of opportunity for promotions, low wages and the government's refusal to negotiate with them -- but they said they were shocked at the level of violence that overtook the normally peaceful country.
The dissidents' statement said Surinam, constitution and human rights would be respected.
Reports said the rebellion started when military police hunted for leaders of the soldiers' union who had gone intohiding. Three of the leaders had been arrested Jan. 30 and jailed for trying to form a union. Two of these, identified as Sgts. B. Sital and L. Neede, emerged as leaders of the coup, and signed the military council statement.
State Department sources said Surinam's head of state, President Johan Ferrier, went on the national radio and appealed for calm, advising the populace to obey the military's orders.
Shops and other businesses closed for the day, and Paramaribo, a city of about 150,000, was reported calm.