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Guinea-Bissau president assassinated

Military denies a coup and pledges to restore order after the killing of Joao Bernardo Vieira hours after the head of the joints chiefs of staff, Batiste Tagme na Waie was slain.

March 03, 2009|Robyn Dixon

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Military leaders in Guinea-Bissau pledged to restore order and democracy in the tiny West African nation Monday after the assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira by soldiers, just hours after the army chief was killed in a bombing.

Vieira and the head of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie, were fierce rivals, and there was speculation that the president was killed to avenge Waie's death.

Military spokesman Zamora Induta said that Vieira's killing was not a military coup and that the army was searching for an isolated group of soldiers believed responsible. He said Vieira was killed as he tried to flee his house.

Waie was slain late Sunday at military headquarters.

African Union leaders and the Economic Community of West African States, a regional group, condemned the assassination. An AU statement described the attack on Vieira as "cowardly and heinous" and the regional group's spokesman, Mohamed ibn Chambas, called it the "assassination of democracy," according to Agence France-Presse news service.

As calm returned to Bissau, the capital, military leaders met with Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr.'s government.

"We reaffirmed our intention to respect the democratically elected power and the constitution of the republic," Induta, the military spokesman, said in a radio broadcast after the meeting. "The people who killed President Vieira have not been arrested but we are pursuing them. The situation is under control."

In the 35 years since Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal, the West African nation has been destabilized by political rivalries, a civil war and coups.

Latin American drug traffickers routing cocaine through the country to Europe have added to the problems, with politicians and the military accusing one another of involvement in smuggling.

The country's open coastline, endemic corruption and lack of law and order make it an ideal transit point for narcotics. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said last year that Guinea-Bissau was on the verge of becoming a narco-state.

One of the poorest countries in Africa, Guinea-Bissau relies on foreign aid and cashew exports for income. Most of its 1.5 million population survives on less than a dollar a day. Its democratic institutions are weak or nonexistent.

A report by the International Crisis Group in January described Guinea-Bissau's institutions as feeble.

"Without a real commitment on the part of the ruling elite to end the intrigues and violence that are so damaging to the country's prospects, it will remain unstable and unable to cope with rampant corruption or change its status as a key drugs-transiting country," said Richard Moncrieff, the group's West Africa Project Director.

Vieira dominated Guinea-Bissau for 23 of the last 29 years. He was head of the armed forces when he seized power in 1980 in a coup, ushering in years of authoritarian rule during which opposition parties were suppressed. He won the country's first democratic elections in 1994, but his dismissal of the army chief in 1998 triggered an army mutiny and plunged the country into civil war. He was deposed in 1999 after 19 years in power.

In 2003, President Kumba Yala was deposed in a coup. Vieira returned from exile in Portugal to win presidential elections in 2005.

Under the constitution, the speaker of the parliament, Raimundo Perreira would take power and elections would be held within 60 days.

Tensions between Vieira's government and the military had been building. In November, soldiers armed with machine guns and grenade launchers attacked the presidential palace but were rebuffed by security forces.

Vieira had a 400-strong security force guarding him, but it was disbanded in January after accusations that it had attacked Waie's car in an assassination attempt.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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