/ 3 March 2009

Envoys in Guinea-Bissau to head off possible coup

African and Portuguese-speaking envoys flew to Guinea-Bissau on Tuesday to try to head off a possible coup after the president and army chief were killed.

Soldiers guarded strategic locations in the capital Bissau and local media said the National Assembly would meet on Tuesday.

The army has denied any wish to seize power, but it was unclear who controlled the poor former Portuguese colony of 1,6-million, where the involvement of drug traffickers has worsened years of instability. The borders remained closed.

President Joao Bernardo ”Nino” Vieira and his long-standing rival General Batista Tagme Na Wai, the armed forces chief, were killed in separate attacks hours apart on Sunday and Monday.

”The African Union [AU] appeals urgently to the political parties and actors of this country to exercise restraint and refrain from plunging the country once again into a spiral of power struggle,” the continental body said in a statement.

”The AU underscores the need to make every effort to avoid the use of violence and power-grabbing as a means of settling disputes,” it said, adding it would send an envoy to Bissau ”to assess the situation and prevent it from worsening”.

The AU suspended neighbouring Guinea after a coup in December following the death of its president.

Senior envoys from Portuguese-speaking countries, including Portuguese State Secretary for Foreign Relations and Cooperation Joao Gomes Cravinho, arrived in Bissau on Tuesday.

”We maintain constant telephone contact, but actually being there sends a different kind of a signal and gives another opportunity to talk. At this moment there is no indication of a need for any international or military force for Guinea-Bissau,” Cravinho said on Portugal’s SIC television before he set off.

Uncertain calm
Life in Bissau began to return to normal, with some shops reopening up on Tuesday.

Local radio stations resumed broadcasts. The army had ordered them to stop broadcasting late on Sunday after Na Wai was killed in an explosion at the military headquarters.

The National Assembly was due to hold a special session, privately owned radio stations reported.

Parliamentary Speaker Raimundo Pereira becomes president for a limited period pending elections under the Constitution, which the armed forces have promised to respect.

”We have come here to reiterate to the government that this is no coup d’etat and that is not the intention of the military,” Frigate Captain Jose Zamora Induta, the deputy head of the Navy and spokesperson for the Armed Forces Officers’ Commission, said on Portugal’s RDP Africa radio late on Monday.

The twin killings have removed two of the most powerful figures in Bissau’s recent history. The country has suffered repeated bouts of civil unrest, military revolt and coups since winning independence in 1974 after a bloody conflict.

Vieira, a guerrilla commander in the independence war, seized power in a coup in 1980. He was deposed by a military junta that included Na Wai in 1999 following a brief civil war, and was elected back into power in 2005.

Vieira’s wife took refuge in the Bissau embassy of fellow former Portuguese colony Angola, and Angolan public radio reported that she had requested asylum in Portugal. — Reuters