Head of parliament sworn in as Guinea-Bissau leader

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau -- The head of Guinea-Bissau's parliament took the oath of office as president Tuesday, a day after the man who ruled this tiny, coup-prone West African nation for two decades was gunned down in front of his wife inside their villa.

A hush fell over the parliament chamber as delegates stood, observing a moment of silence for President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira and his long-standing rival, the head of the armed forces.

The two were assassinated in back-to-back attacks beginning Sunday night, when a bomb hidden underneath a staircase killed the army chief inside his office. His inner circle pointed the finger at Vieira and hours later, the president was assassinated.

On Tuesday, Head of Parliament Raimundo Pereira became the country's new interim president, quelling speculation the army had been planning a coup and marking a continuation of democratic rule after the two killings.

Speaking to several hundred lawmakers and visiting diplomats shortly afterward against the backdrop of a giant national flag hanging on the wall behind him, Pereira urged the military to respect civil rule.

"Since the era of democracy came to Guinea-Bissau, most presidents have been unable to finish their mandate," Pereira said. "My time in office will be temporary, but I will do my all to organize elections in time."

According to the constitution, a presidential ballot should be held within 60 days. "But that is only a theory right now," said parliament member Talibe Djau. "Two months is not much time to prepare after such a tragedy."

Pereira said his mission would be to help Guinea-Bissau "achieve our dreams," namely, building the foundation for peace.

In earlier comments, Pereira called for calm in the former Portuguese colony, which is struggling to stem a booming cocaine trade.

Life appeared to have returned to normal in Bissau by Tuesday. But some expressed hope things would change for the better.

"We're tired of all this violence and coups. Every time we elect somebody, something like this happens," said Marciano Alfonse Vaz, one of a couple of hundred people who stood outside parliament. "We feel ashamed. All we can hope for is that now our politicians will finally help us."

The military blamed an "isolated group" of soldiers for Vieira's assassination and categorically denied the death was retribution for the killing a day earlier of Vieira's longtime rival, armed forces chief of staff Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie.

Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, a member of a fact-finding mission sent by ECOWAS, a regional bloc of 15 African states, said late Tuesday that the twin assassinations have ramifications for the continent.

"We took it as a tragedy for Africa as a whole because once again the rest of the world is watching us and making judgments," said Gadio, who is Senegal's minister of foreign affairs.

He said ECOWAS was focused on finding answers. "We need to know what happened to President Vieira and what happened to the armed forces' chief of staff," he said.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned the assassinations and called on Guinea-Bissau's government to bring those responsible for the killings to justice.

The left side of Guinea-Bissau's two-story military headquarters building was been blown apart in the blast, reduced to a pile of collapsed rubble.

Vieira's home, a modest bungalow in the capital, had a rocket hole beside its front door. Several cars including a black Hummer parked outside were riddled with bullet holes, and shards of glass littered the street. Gadio said the ECOWAS delegation met with Vieira's widow who said her husband had essentially been executed before her eyes.

Guinea-Bissau has suffered multiple coups and attempted coups since 1980 when Vieira himself took power in one. He was forced out 19 years later at the onset of the country's civil war, later returning from exile in Portugal to run in the country's 2005 election and win the vote.

Vieira's death creates a dangerous opening in light of the country's appeal to cocaine smugglers.

While demand for cocaine has leveled off in the U.S., it continues to rise in Europe, forcing Latin American drug cartels to aggressively seek new routes to smuggle cocaine to Europe. In recent years, they have begun flying small, twin-engine planes to Africa's West coast, where they land on deserted islands or on dirt runways and then parcel out the drugs to dozens of smugglers who ferry them north. The government estimates that as much as 1,750 pounds of the drug is transiting the country's borders each week, an amount worth billions of dollars per year.

It's unclear how the assassinations of the two powerful figures will affect the drug trade. Many have long suspected that the army chief and the president were complicit in the trade. Others -- including the U.N. drug czar for the region -- have argued that they were powerless to stop them.

"Drug traffickers do need partners to serve their interest and reduce the risk generated by this situation," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the West Africa director of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. "Both President Vieira and Gen. Tagme were very vocal against the infiltration of narcotraffickers in the country -- but also powerless against their financial power of corruption."

While the twin assassinations do not appear to be drug-related, analysts point out that the use of a bomb to kill Waie is highly unusual in West Africa, where assassinations and coups d'etat are still the domain of the Kalashnikov.

"For the first time, a bomb was used, which looks really and truly not African -- that's the not the way such actions are put together [here in Africa]," said Gadio of the ECOWAS delegation.

The use of the bomb could indicate that the assassination was a contract job, led by foreigners. It's led some to point the finger at the Colombian drug cartels.

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