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Tiny Guinea-Bissau becomes latest West African nation hit by coup

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — The military here took control of the national radio station Thursday night and raided the headquarters of the country's ruling party, raising fears that another coup is unfolding in West Africa.

Eyewitnesses reported residents running in the streets as gunfire and mortar rounds went off in the capital's downtown district, where electricity had been cut off. There were rumors that former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., who was expected to be elected president later this month, had been arrested. Soldiers were seen occupying his house in Bissau, according to reports.

"Everybody was running to get back to their homes," said Andrew Stutzman, an American missionary from Pennsylvania who was not far from downtown Bissau when the shooting began. "People were definitely nervous. The transport vehicles weren't really taking people."

The apparent coup comes on the heels of a coup in Mali three weeks ago — a nearby country that had been seen as relatively stable. Guinea-Bissau, in contrast, has had several coups since a bloody 13-year war for independence from Portugal ended in 1974.

No elected president here has ever finished a full term. In 2009, the president was assassinated. And in January this year, his replacement, Malam Bacai Sanha, died from complications related to diabetes.

In an emergency presidential election on March 18, Gomes won 49 percent — just shy of enough to win the election outright. A runoff is scheduled for April 29, but opposition candidates, including former President Kumba Yala, declared the first round of elections fraudulent, though international observers said there were no irregularities.

Yala, who has a good relationship with the military, has refused to participate in the runoff election. He warned at a recent press conference: "Whoever dares to campaign will be responsible for what happens."

The nation also is a hotbed for the cocaine trade. Latin American drug smugglers ferry the drugs here to the nation's uninhabited islands in the Atlantic Ocean. From there it is trafficked to Europe.

(Collins is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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