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Guinea-Bissau coup leaders close borders, airport

The crisis in this tiny West African country worsened Monday after the military group that overthrew the government last week suspended the constitution, dissolved Parliament and sealed off Guinea-Bissau’s borders. Union workers went on strike, bringing the country to a standstill.

“You’ve got a situation where there is a stalemate,” said a Western nongovernmental-organization worker who knows the country well and who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his security. “Nothing is functioning.”

The military beefed up its presence in downtown Bissau, the capital, after a small group of protesters who opposed the coup clashed with soldiers Sunday, sending 20 protesters to the hospital, a diplomat said. Text messages swirling around the capital suggested plans for new protests, but none materialized Monday.

Meanwhile, banks, shops and government agencies closed in this country of 1.6 million in which almost seven out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day. A 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew has been imposed in the capital.

Some residents were fleeing Bissau after a Lisbon-based association of Portuguese-speaking countries called for a U.N.-mandated military intervention. Portugal announced that it was sending two warships and a military plane to Guinea-Bissau to evacuate its citizens, though coup leaders here apparently saw it as a threat, prompting them to close the country’s seaport, airport and borders.

The coup came in the midst of a contentious presidential election in which the front-runner, former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., had promised to downsize the military, which analysts say is bloated, poorly trained and deeply involved in the cocaine trade. Military leaders, along with some politicians, have been accused of helping to traffic hundreds of millions of dollars of drugs each year from Latin America to Europe.

Last Thursday, a group of soldiers launched grenades into Gomes’ house and arrested him, along with interim President Raimundo Pereira. The soldiers then tracked down other government ministers and looted their homes, diplomats here said. Gomes remains in custody.

John Gomes, the brother of Interior Minister Fernando Gomes, said he and his brother were hiding in a European Union compound. He said other ministers had taken refuge in various foreign embassies, but none had been killed as rumored. The Gomes brothers aren’t related to the former prime minister.

“We are trying to find out information, just like you,” John Gomes said. “We are just listening to the radio to try to find out what’s going on outside.”

There are signs that the coup leaders are desperate to crush opposition. One Western diplomat who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation said the military had begun recruiting people from rural areas to pose as soldiers and rough up protesters. The hired hands were given uniforms and guns to do their job, the diplomat said. Also, a popular blogger, Antonio Aly Silva, wrote that soldiers arrested him Saturday, tortured him and then released him.

Coup leaders had shut down local news radio stations Sunday, but they allowed them to reopen Monday with a warning to not be too critical in their reporting.

There are conflicting reports about whether Army Gen. Antonio Injai orchestrated the coup. The military had suggested that his own army had arrested him, but some say that was only a ruse to take the focus away from him.

The military was in talks with more than a dozen opposition parties over the weekend to form a “unity government” that would exclude Carlos Gomes Jr.’s party, which held two-thirds of the seats in the assembly before it was dissolved. But after promising to offer details Monday, coup leaders failed to do so.

Diplomats here say that no matter what kind of unity government is formed, the international community – which has strongly condemned the coup – will reject it. A high-level delegation from ECOWAS, an association of West African countries, arrived late Monday to demand that coup leaders back down.

Complicating matters, five former presidential candidates who’d initially appeared to support the coup announced Monday that they now oppose it and insisted on restoring the constitution. But their leader, former President Kumba Yala, refused to answer a critical question from reporters: whether restoring constitutional order would mean releasing his opponent, Carlos Gomes Jr., and allowing him to run for president.

(Collins and Djalo are McClatchy special correspondents.)

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