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Guinea-Bissau Coup: Soldiers Take Over Two Weeks Before Elections

By LAMINE DJATA and KRISTA LARSON 04/13/12 03:32 PM ET AP

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — Soldiers have arrested the prime minister of this tiny nation known for transiting cocaine to Europe, a military spokesman said Friday, the latest instability to roil a coup-prone West African country where no leader in nearly 40 years has finished his time in office.

The announcement of Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr.'s detention came hours after his home came under attack by grenades. Guinea-Bissau was due to hold a contentious presidential runoff election on April 29, and Gomes was the front-runner.

The U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously condemned the military coup, and demanded that the government be restored.

Portuguese broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa showed a large hole blasted around the front door of the prime minister's official residence in Bissau and other damage to the house from what it said were rocket-propelled grenades.

In 2009, the country's longtime leader was assassinated in his home, and his successor died from illness in January before finishing his term, prompting this year's special election. The timing of Thursday's power grab was not accidental, said Martin Roberts, a West Africa analyst with IHS Global Insight.

"It looks like what they don't want is the person who probably was going to become president to win the second round," he said.

Guinea-Bissau's land border with neighboring Senegal was closed Friday, and both Portugal and the United States advised their citizens against traveling to the nation of about 1.6 million.

In a communique released Friday in Bissau, an unidentified military commander claimed that Gomes was going to allow troops from Angola, another former Portuguese colony in Africa, to attack military forces in Guinea-Bissau. Roberts said military officials likely feared the Angolans would interfere with cocaine trafficking.

"The people who are concerned don't want to be removed from the army," he said. "The fact they wear a uniform and carry a gun is their passport to participate in this lucrative trade."

Officially, most of Guinea-Bissau's earnings come from cashew nuts. But traffickers from Latin America use the nation's archipelago of uninhabited islands to land small, twin-engine planes loaded with drugs, which are then parceled out and carried north for sale in Europe.

The traffickers, according to analysts, have bought off key members of the government and the military, creating a narcostate.

Gomes had been favored to win the April 29 runoff after his challenger Kumba Yala, a former president who was overthrown in a 2003 coup, said he would boycott the vote because of irregularities in the first round of balloting.

Military press attache Francelino Cunha told The Associated Press that Gomes had been detained by the military. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, the current president of the U.N. Security Council, said the military has arrested the prime minister as well as acting president Raimundo Pereira

"Their whereabouts cannot be confirmed at this time," Rice said. "The (U.N.) Secretariat urged the international community to address the cycle of violence and impunity in Guinea-Bissau," she said. "The members of the Security Council condemned the military action and urged the immediate restoration of civilian authority."

Military officials said they thwarted a coup attempt in December not long before the president's death. And fears of a military coup have grown since his funeral, when power was handed over to the interim president.

"It's very worrying for Guinea-Bissau's long-term political stability and for its capacity to attract support from the international community," said Marie Gibert, a West Africa analyst and lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.

The unidentified military commander claimed that soldiers possessed a "secret document" drawn up by the Guinea-Bissau government mandating Angola to attack Guinea-Bissau's military. It was impossible to independently verify the claim.

"The Military Command does not want power but it was forced to act in this way to defend itself from the diplomatic maneuvers of the Guinea-Bissau government, which aims to annihilate the (country's) armed forces using foreign military force," the communique said, according to the Portuguese news agency Lusa.

Angola sent about 200 troops to Guinea-Bissau in March 2011 to help reform the country's armed forces as part of a bilateral military agreement, according to Angolan state news agency Angop. Their mission recently ended but the contingent is still in Bissau, Angop said without providing further details.

Angolan Defense Minister Candido Pereira Van-Dunem said Thursday in Luanda that his country would "continue to provide full support" to Guinea-Bissau, with which Angola has "excellent ties," Angop reported. He said a calendar for the return of Angolan troops to Luanda was being negotiated with the Bissau authorities.

Guinea-Bissau has weathered successive coups, attempted coups and a civil war since winning independence from Portugal in 1974.

On Thursday night, witnesses said explosions rocked the capital. Shooting started after the state radio station signal inexplicably went dead. Resident Edmond Ajoye, an employee of a Dutch NGO, said he was around 3 miles (5 kilometers) from his home when the shooting began.

"There was panic. Women were running," he said. "There were rockets being launched, and the soldiers were shooting with guns mounted on their trucks."

"The soldiers took downtown," he continued. "The shooting lasted from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. They then went from embassy to embassy to make sure that the politicians couldn't seek refuge there."

The unrest in Guinea-Bissau takes place only three weeks after mutinous soldiers overthrew the democratically elected president of Mali, who was about to retire after an April election. The country's junta leader handed over power to an interim civilian president on Thursday.

Guinea-Bissau's upheaval presents another dilemma for the regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which is already considering military force to oust rebels who declared independence in northern Mali.

"The commission firmly denounces this latest incursion by the military into politics and unreservedly condemns the irresponsible act, which has once more demonstrated their penchant to maintain Guinea-Bissau as a failed state," Desire Kadre Ouedraogo, the president of the ECOWAS commission, said in a statement released early Friday.

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Krista Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Peter James Spielmann and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; and Lassana Cassama in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau contributed to this report.

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Filed by Eline Gordts  |