Guinea-Bissau president 'assassinated by military'

 

Soldiers killed Guinea-Bissau's President Joao Bernado "Nino" Vieira today in an apparent revenge attack hours after the West African country's army chief was killed, residents and security sources said.

Gunfire and the crump of heavier weapons resounded in Bissau city in the early hours of this morning, subsiding at first light. Most residents stayed at home and it was unclear who was in control.

"The death of Head of State Joao Bernardo Vieira is confirmed. His wife is at the Angolan embassy," Sandji Fati, a retired army colonel and close associate of the slain president, told Reuters in the capital Bissau.

"Nino Vieira refused to leave his residence when diplomats from the Angolan embassy came to take him and his wife to safety," Fati said.

Security sources confirmed Vieira's death and two Bissau residents who live near Vieira's home said presidential guards had told them the president had been killed there.

The former Portuguese colony of just 1.6 million people has suffered years of coups and civil strife and has been used in the past few years as a conduit for smuggling Latin American cocaine to Europe.

Vieira is a former military ruler who was ousted during a civil war in the 1990s and returned to power in a 2005 election.

He had been at odds with armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Wai, who was killed in an attack on Sunday evening that also destroyed part of the military headquarters.

"Last night the chef d'etat major was killed and the president was killed early this morning while trying to leave his home.

His house was attacked by a group of military," an official from West Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

A security source said soldiers from Na Wai's Balante ethnic group led the attack on Vieira, who is from the smaller Papel community, and looted his home afterwards.

"Tagme always said that his and the president's fate were linked and if he died, so would the president," the source said.

Portugal condemned both attacks.

"The Portuguese government appeals for total respect of the constitutional order in the country," Portugal's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Tensions are rife within Bissau's political establishment and security forces. In January, the armed forces command said militiamen hired to protect President Vieira had shot at Na Wai.

A member of the militia denied the shooting had been an assassination attempt but the armed forces command nevertheless ordered the militia be disbanded.

The 400-strong force had been recruited as Vieira's personal bodyguard by the Interior Ministry after the president was targeted in a machinegun and rocket-propelled grenade attack on his residence on Nov. 23 last year.

Soldiers loyal to Na Wai set free people accused of that attack early today, a judicial police officer said. "At 1 a.m. soldiers who support Na Wai broke down the cell doors at the judicial police station and freed six people suspected of carrying out the Nov. 23 attack on Nino Vieira's home," said the officer, who declined to be named.

Analysts say political instability has been exacerbated in the past few years as Latin American drugs gangs have taken advantage of Guinea-Bissau's poorly policed coastline and remote airstrips to smuggle cocaine through Africa to Europe.

They say well-resourced drug cartels with access to weapons, speedboats and planes have been able to secure co-operation from senior officials in the armed forces and government in one of the world's poorest countries, whose main export is cashew nuts.

Reuters