Army stages coup, detains president in Guinea-Bissau

LISBON, Portugal -- The army launched a coup in the West Africa country of Guinea-Bissau on Sunday, arresting the president and ordering government ministers detained, officials here said.

Portuguese Foreign Ministry spokesman Fernando Lima said Sunday "a military committee" was now in control of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony.

"The situation there is calm and under control," Lima said, citing information provided by the Portuguese embassy in Bissau. "There were no acts of violence, no shots fired and no injuries."

An army spokesman announced the takeover at 8 a.m. on a radio station, the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported from Bissau, the capital of the Atlantic coast country between Guinea and Senegal.

President Kumba Yala, who was elected almost three years ago, was being held at the main army barracks in the capital, Lusa reported. Senior officers told Lusa that Yala was unharmed.

A communique said to be from the armed forces chiefs of staff was read over the radio Sunday morning, announcing the army was "taking constitutional power," Lusa said.

It ordered all members of the government to report to a public building in the capital by 10:30 a.m., Lusa said.

The army said it was setting up what it called a Military Committee for the Restitution of Constitutional and Democratic Order, according to the report.

In a radio broadcast hours later, Lt. Col. Jose Zamora Induta read a statement saying "there was no shooting, nor will there be any shooting," Lusa reported.

The committee will govern until elections can be held and will include representatives from the country's political parties, Induta said. It will be led by armed forces chief of staff Gen. Verissimo Correia Seabre.

Correia Seabre, in a brief interview with Portuguese state television Radiotelevisao Portuguesa, accused Yala of causing "political instability" that was undermining the country's development.

Correia Seabre said Yala abused his power, arbitrarily arrested opponents and prepared a fraudulent vote in planned elections.

Yala could decide whether he wanted to stay in Guinea-Bissau or go into exile, he said.

Portugal issued a statement urging Guinea-Bissau's military to back down.

"The Portuguese government regrets the military coup today in Guinea-Bissau and appeals to those behind it to return constitutional legality to the country immediately," it said.

A 7 a.m.-7 p.m. curfew was imposed throughout the former Portuguese colony, although people were moving about freely later. Phone lines into the country appeared not to be working.

"Most of the phone lines appear to be down and it's very difficult to get calls in and out, so we're trying to find out what's going on," an official at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, said.

The U.S. Embassy in Senegal has been accredited to cover Guinea-Bissau since the United States closed its embassy there following a 1998 rebellion.

The streets of Bissau were calm, reports said, although soldiers armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers were reported to be deployed at strategic points in Bissau.

Air Senegal canceled all flights to Guinea-Bissau until further notice, airport officials said in Dakar.

The Senegalese carrier flies regularly from Dakar to Bissau and had two flights scheduled for Sunday. It was not known, however, if the airport in Bissau remained open, the official said.

Guinea-Bissau, with a population of about 1 million people, is one of the world's poorest countries, according to the United Nations. Food shortages are common and basic public services often do not work.

Yala promised elections last February in an effort to stop political squabbling that has paralyzed the government. However, the ballot has been repeatedly postponed because of a lack of money and organizational difficulties.

Yala had promised a U.N. Security Council mission that passed through Bissau earlier this year that elections would be held Oct. 12, but the National Electoral Commission said last week it would not be ready in time.

Other Portuguese-speaking nations have sent diplomats in an attempt to ease political tension in Guinea-Bissau. Recently, Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, the foreign minister of East Timor, visited Bissau to try to help.

Guinea-Bissau has still not recovered from an armed rebellion in 1998 that killed more than 2,000 people and ousted then-President Joao Bernardo Vieira.

Yala and his Social Renewal Party won 1999 presidential and legislative elections that were part of an accord to end the 11-month conflict.

Troops attempted to overthrow Yala in 2001 but were thwarted by soldiers.

Guinea-Bissau, which became independent in 1975, has been haunted by violence and poverty. Bissau, the capital, is without electricity, and many people lack basic amenities such as plumbing. Store shelves are largely bare and shops generally close in the mid-afternoon.

This was the second coup in a former Portuguese colony in two months. In July, the army of Sao Tome and Principe off the West Africa coast took power for a week in a bloodless coup.

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