Guinea-Bissau leaders promise transition to civilian government

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau -- Guinea-Bissau's army chief of staff won political leaders' backing Monday for overthowing the unpopular and erratic president, who remained in military detention after an apparently bloodless coup.

In talks, army Chief of Staff Verissimo Correia Seabre also secured political party leaders' agreement that he should have presidential powers in the impoverished former Portuguese colony until elections can be held.

The West African nation's capital was calm Monday, a day after Seabre and fellow senior officers arrested the elected president, Kumba Yala.

The military lifted a one-day dusk-to-dawn curfew, the airport reopened even though commercial flights remained canceled, and most soldiers returned to their barracks.

In a statement, the new junta rulers declared they had acted "to save democracy."

Officers said the coup was spurred by a threat from Yala's prime minister, Mario Pires, to wage civil war if the president's Social Renewal Party lost scheduled Oct. 12 parliamentary elections.

Pires had been quoted as saying at a campaign rally this month that an opposition victory would mean violence.

Yala was in military custody Monday, although junta leaders said he would eventually be free to leave Guinea-Bissau -- or to stay -- if he chose.

Seabre, a top leader in a junta that ruled Guinea-Bissau for 11 months in 1998-99, assembled heads of the country's political parties, as well as church and union officials and other civilian leaders for consultations on a transition government.

Portuguese state radio said politicians expressed support for the coup, and agreed Seabre should take charge until elections are held.

Delegates in the talks approved a 16-member committee to consider who should lead a transitional government under the army chief of staff.

Yala, an opposition leader elected in 1999, had dissolved parliament and repeatedly resisted calling fresh elections.

-- despite international warnings that only a fair vote would trigger resumption of full foreign aid and investment.

Initially, Yala's election had been welcomed as the country's best chance at democracy and reform after the 1998-99 junta overthrew a civilian government widely seen as corrupt.

Known for his trademark red wool cap, Yala increasingly had been seen as unstable, however -- hiring and firing five prime ministers in succession, and threatening recently to invade nearby Gambia, a nation with which Guinea-Bissau is at peace.

Rights groups increasingly accused Yala's government of jailing citizens without explanation, and the administration had failed to make payroll for soldiers and other government employees for at least six months.

The army attempted a coup in 2001, but was blocked by loyalist soldiers.

Nigeria, Senegal and several other African countries condemned the coup, as did Portugal. Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, whose country has been a major influence in Guinea-Bissau's affairs, led a West African delegation to Bissau to meet with the junta leaders.

Diplomats from eight Portuguese-speaking countries meeting in Lisbon stopped short of demanding Yala's reinstatement, saying their countries were ready to help with "initiatives appropriate to the new situation."

In a statement, ambassadors from the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries urged Guinea-Bissau to implement "consensual solutions which emerge from the talks now under way" and lead to elections.

A nation the size of Massachusetts with a population of about 1 million, Guinea-Bissau has an average annual per capita gross domestic product of roughly $180, according to the World Bank.

Largely rural, the country is one of the poorest in the world, living off aid, peanut farming and rice growing.

Food shortages are common, and basic public services don't work. The country is without electricity and many people lack plumbing.

The capital remains bullet-scarred by the 1999 uprising that overthrew President Joao Bernardo Vieira. Fighting killed at least 2,000 people.

In 2000, soldiers loyal to Yala shot and killed military chief Gen. Ansumane Mane.

A U.S. State Department rights report in 2002 noted that the death of Mane, who was an ethnic Mandinka and a Muslim, showed Yala, an ethnic Balanta and a Christian, increasingly has been intolerant of other ethnic and religious groups.

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