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Guinea-Bissau Leader Quits

September 18, 2003|From Associated Press

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — Guinea-Bissau's elected leader formally ceded power Wednesday before the eyes of envoys from neighboring states, who couldn't coax the military junta into giving up control it grabbed three days before in a bloodless coup.

Cheering crowds marched in the capital of this impoverished coastal West African country to celebrate President Koumba Yala's overthrow. He had become deeply unpopular in his 3 1/2 years in office, presiding over a government so poor it cannot pay its civil servants.

"We don't need Yala here. We need Yala out of Guinea-Bissau," said Maria Lopes, 47, one of the cheering, chanting marchers.

Foreign ministers of six West African nations gathered in Yala's tin-roofed, single-story home to watch him sign the document surrendering authority. Yala is being held there under house arrest and cannot speak freely.

Looking sad and solemn, Yala taped a departure speech, urging new elections and calling on the military to stay out of a transition government expected to be set up soon.

The junta broadcast the nine-point speech hours later on state radio. In it, Yala said he "salutes" the military for having avoided violence during the coup. He said he gave up his post in the interest of peace.

"In the name of national unity, and in the interest of resolving our problems peacefully, I've decided to resign from my position as president of the republic," Yala said. "I accept that the situation was not so good."

The West African delegation, which included foreign ministers from Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Gambia and Cape Verde, issued a statement saying a civilian government would be formed.

But Gen. Verissimo Correia Seabra, who led the coup and has declared himself president, said at his military barracks that he would oversee the new government until elections were held.

"We will give back power to the civilian people," Seabra said.

"We're not interested in keeping power," he said. "This will be a transitional government, and once it is created we will hold elections."

Seabra gave no date for the vote.

West African states, along with the U.N. Security Council and leaders elsewhere, condemned the coup.

But many here, blaming Yala for ever-worsening lives, welcomed it.

"There's no money to pay salaries, to pay teachers, there is no school," said Lopes, marching past Portuguese-colonial houses sprawling behind palm trees.

Yala, a former opposition leader, won about 70% of the vote in a 1999 election that ended an 11-month reign by many of the same military officers who took part in this week's coup, including Seabra.

Yala's administration quickly frustrated hopes that it would usher in democracy and stability. Yala dissolved the legislature in 2002 and postponed parliamentary elections several times.

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