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Did effort to stop drug payoffs to military trigger Guinea-Bissau coup?

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — One day after the military in this tiny West African nation shelled a presidential candidate's home and sealed this capital city from outsiders, it was still unclear Friday who, exactly, was in charge.

The military announced Friday night that it had arrested Carlos Gomes Jr., a former prime minister and a leading presidential candidate, as well as interim President Raimundo Pereira. But no new successor has been proclaimed, and the reasons for the coup remained opaque.

There was speculation that Gomes could have run afoul of the military by promising to end a lucrative arrangement between the military and international drug traffickers. Analysts say the drug traffickers pay the military to look the other way — or even help out — as cocaine shipments are flown in by small planes from South America, stashed away in the country's coastal islands, and smuggled into Europe.

"The drugs are behind it all," said Jan Van Maanen, the honorary British consul in Guinea-Bissau. "It's a nice income for the army and they stand a chance of losing it all."

Analysts said, however, that the motive behind the coup here most likely was the same as for previous ones — Guinea-Bissau's military tends to oust politicians it doesn't like to make room for politicians it prefers.

"Guinea-Bissau has a long history of very specific kinds of coups where the army never assumes power but turns it over very quickly," said Vincent Foucher, a Dakar-based researcher with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based group that studies conflicts around the world. "Only a few people get killed each time."

That's different from the coup in nearby Mali three weeks ago, where an unknown army officer overthrew the country's democratically elected president and suspended the constitution ahead of April 29 elections, complaining that the civilian government had not done enough to stop a rebellion by nomadic tribesmen in the country's north. The coup plotters, however, surrendered their authority this week after West African neighbors shunned them and the Tuareg nomad rebels captured most of the country's northern reaches.

Analysts say that the recent turmoil in West Africa — including the Mali coup — isn't so much a sign of spreading regional instability as it is perhaps an indication of growing pains for budding democracies.

This year alone, almost a dozen West African countries have legislative or presidential elections scheduled. And as the era of strongmen phases out, elections begin to play a larger role in determining countries' futures, which can lead to increased tensions.

"Clearly, it's a really challenging time for the region," said Peter Thompson, the head of a British electoral observation team that has been sent to Guinea-Bissau.

Some elections have gone smoothly. In neighboring Senegal, for example, longtime President Abdoulaye Wade peacefully stepped down after losing a re-election bid last month.

In Guinea-Bissau, a first round of presidential elections had been held last month and the runoff was scheduled for April 29, with Gomes, who received 49 percent in the first round, expected to win.

Then came Thursday's coup. At 7:30 p.m. soldiers launched four or five grenades at Gomes' house, knocking out walls, according to Thompson, who heard the attack. Heavy gunfire followed for about an hour.

Meanwhile, other soldiers stormed the national radio and television stations as well as the ruling party's headquarters. The customs building at the port was set on fire. The military also blocked off the downtown district, shut off public electricity, and closed the main road in and out of Bissau, witnesses said.

A group representing West African countries issued a statement Friday condemning what it called an "ongoing attempt by the military to overthrow the government of Guinea Bissau."

Desire Kadre Ouedraogo, president of the ECOWAS Commission, said the group "firmly denounces this latest incursion by the military into politics and unreservedly condemns the irresponsible act."

On Friday, normally congested streets in Bissau were deserted save for a handful of military patrol vehicles. The military was repeatedly broadcasting a message from an unidentified officer that said it did not want to control the country but was "forced to act in this way to defend itself from the diplomatic maneuvers of the Guinea-Bissau government, which aims to annihilate the (country's) armed forces using foreign military force," according to reports.

The statement was in apparent reference to the yearlong presence of 200 Angolan troops who were invited by the government to help reform the Guinea-Bissau military, which analysts say is bloated, poorly trained and often fails to respect civilian rule. Angola, like Guinea-Bissau, is a former Portuguese colony and has a strong interest in Guinea-Bissau's stability — as well as its potentially lucrative mineral deposits.

Gomes was a strong supporter of the Angolan mission. His opponent in the runoff was to have been former President Kumba Yala, who has a good relationship with the military. Yala, however, has claimed the first round of the election was fraudulent and has refused to campaign. Just hours before the coup, he warned a new conference that "whoever dares to campaign will be responsible for what happens."

(Collins is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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