BISSAU (Reuters) - Soldiers in Guinea-Bissau have detained the country’s interim president and the former prime minister, cutting short an unfinished presidential election in West Africa’s second military power grab in a month.
A military spokesman confirmed the detentions of ex-premier and presidential election front-runner Carlos Gomes Junior and interim President Raimundo Pereira, following assaults by armed soldiers on their homes on Thursday evening.
“They are well,” Lieutenant-Colonel Daha Bana na Walna told reporters after a meeting at army headquarters in the capital Bissau between military officers and representatives of political parties in the small, coup-prone former Portuguese colony.
“The military chiefs suggested the idea of new presidential and legislative elections,” said Agnela Regalla of the Union for Change party, one of the politicians who attended the talks.
Organisations and governments, from the U.N. Security Council to the European Union, African Union and the United States and Portugal condemned the latest military interruption of civilian rule in West Africa. Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Portas called for the release of the detainees.
Diplomats said the putsch in Guinea-Bissau, initially claimed by a shadowy self-styled “Military Command”, appeared to be an attempt to prevent an election win by Gomes Junior, the candidate of the ruling PAIGC party. He had finished top in a first round vote last month, qualifying for an April 29 run-off.
Gomes Junior was unpopular with the military because he supported an initiative to reform and downsize the bloated army, which has a history of bloody revolts and meddling in Guinea-Bissau politics since independence from Portugal in 1974.
Na Walna said Gomes Junior and Pereira, a former parliament speaker who is also a member of the PAIGC, had been removed and detained because of what he called “unease” among the country’s military leaders over the ongoing electoral process.
The Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP), which counts Guinea-Bissau among its members, called an extraordinary meeting in Lisbon for Saturday to discuss the events in Bissau.
West African states are also struggling to deal with a crisis in Mali, where a coup last month triggered the occupation of the north of the country by Tuareg and Islamist rebels. Facing international pressure, the Mali coup leaders have handed power back to a civilian interim president.
Bissau was calm but expectant on Friday. Armed soldiers guarded the offices of the presidency, government buildings, the state broadcaster and main roads in and out of the city.
Earlier, a communique from the self-styled “Military Command” read on the Portuguese RDP Africa radio said it acted to head off what it alleged was a secret pact between Gomes Junior and Angola to “annihilate Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces”.
The unsigned communique said the Military Command “did not have ambitions of power”, but did not elaborate further.
Angola, which due to its oil wealth is much richer than Guinea-Bissau, had been providing military trainers and advisers to the smaller state in a military cooperation mission. But it announced a few days ago that it was ending the mission.
Diplomats believed the real target of the coup was Gomes Junior. “It’s very well known that the army didn’t like Carlos Gomes Junior and he was about to be elected. So they either had to kill him or make sure he wasn’t elected,” one Bissau-based diplomat, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
The United States called for the restoration of civilian rule. “It is regrettable that elements of the Bissau-Guinean military have chosen to derail the democratic process in Guinea-Bissau,” the U.S. embassy in the country said in a statement.
There were reports of soldiers ransacking the homes of ministers and senior officials, many of whom were in hiding.
News of the Guinea-Bissau events shocked and dismayed foreign ministers of the West African regional grouping ECOWAS who had been meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Thursday to discuss Mali. Guinea-Bissau Foreign Minister Mamadu Djalo Pires, who was also in Abidjan, called for an “energetic reaction” from the international community against what he said was a coup.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the apparent coup urged a return to civilian leadership. The 15-nation body, in a unanimously agreed statement, bemoaned “the forcible seizure of power from the legitimate government of Guinea-Bissau by some elements of its armed forces. (We) firmly denounce this incursion by the military into politics.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, at a regular news briefing on Friday, urged all Guinea-Bissau parties to “put down their weapons, release government leaders immediately and restore legitimate civilian leadership”.
Toner said it looked as if military forces had taken control of radio and television stations because they were off the air, had seized the headquarters of the ruling party and were trying to restrict movement.
Guinea-Bissau, whose weak governance has made it a haven for Latin American drug cartels transhipping cocaine to Europe, was in the middle of electing a president to replace Malam Bacai Sanha, who died in a Paris hospital in January after an illness.
Gomes Junior’s rival in the run-off, Kumba Yala, had said he would boycott the vote over alleged first-round rigging. Only hours before Thursday’s coup, Yala, an ex-president who claims ethnic ties with the mostly Balanta military, had warned of “consequences” if campaigning for the second round went ahead.
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s most fragile and volatile states. Its main official export is cashew nuts. An ordinary Bissau Guinean lives on less than $2 a day.
Political assassinations, health problems and meddling by an oversized military have prevented any president from serving a full term since multi-party politics began in 1994.
Top military officials in Bissau have been accused by the United States of being drug runners.
Additional reporting by Mamadu Cande in Bissau, Andrei Khalip in Lisbon, David Lewis in Bamako, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Tabassum Zakaria in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Mark Heinrich