IRIN-WA Weekly Roundup of Main Events 59 for West Africa
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GUINEA-BISSAU: Ceasefire opens way for talks
After eight weeks of fighting between soldiers loyal to the government of Guinea-Bissau and army rebels, a truce negotiated by a contact group of Portuguese speaking nations was signed on Sunday calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities. News organisations, Catholic Church officials and humanitarian agencies reported the capital Bissau, largely deserted after weeks of heavy shelling, has been calm since the truce.
Delegations from the Guinea-Bissau government and rebels met at the weekend aboard a Portuguese frigate, the 'Corte Real', anchored in the port of Bissau with mediators from the contact group established by the Community of Portuguese speaking countries (CPLP). Under the agreement, the three sides, the government, the rebels and the CPLP, were scheduled to hold fresh talks aboard the Frigate on Friday.
The ceasefire plan called for formal negotiations, a de-militarised zone around the strategically located town of Mansoa, north of Bissau, the deployment of peacekeeping troops from Portuguese speaking countries and the opening of corridors of humanitarian aid.
On Wednesday news organisations quoted each side accusing the other of breaching the truce upcountry. Although neither spoke of abandoning it, the CPLP immediately ordered the deployment of an advance team of military observers, according to news reports in Portugal. As the former colonial power in Guinea-Bissau, the Portuguese daily 'Publico' said Lisbon would only dispatch peacekeepers under the CPLP banner.
The conflict in Guinea-Bissau started on 7 June when President Joao Bernardo Vieira suspended and then sacked rebel leader Ansumane Mane as army chief after allegations that some senior army officers had been smuggling weapons to separatists in Senegal's southern province of Casamance.
Church demands both sides stick to truce
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Bissau, Settimio Ferrazzetta, said in an interview with the missionary Misna news agency on Wednesday that the truce was holding. He said that a local "goodwill group" comprising representatives of the National Assembly, Church, Muslim and "traditional" communities would help the Lusophone contact group and insist on "an absolute guarantee that the truce will not be broken." He said they would also demand security guarantees for humanitarian aid.
Senegal which sent an estimated 3,000 troops to Guinea-Bissau to help President Vieira fight the revolt said it was also abiding by the ceasefire. "He intervention has saved the constitutional order in Guinea-Bissau,'' Reuters quoted Senegal's President Abdou Diouf as saying. "I welcome the ceasefire in Guinea-Bissau. The Senegalese army will respect the truce."
News reports said, however, Dakar had given no indication whether it would abide by Senegalese opposition demands to withdraw its forces from Guinea-Bissau.
Guinea-Bissau's defence minister, Samba Lamine Mane, this week was quoted by AFP as saying there was "no question that the troops allied with Guinea-Bissau will leave now". He added that Dakar's intervention was legal under a joint defence pact.
The WFP said on Wednesday it would double its weekly food deliveries by road from neighbouring Guinea Conakry and that local communities had determined that 288,000 people were in need of assistance. It said 156,000 people were concentrated urban areas, and that 134,000 camped in the countryside. It also said it would be sending food via Senegal which had opened a new aid corridor to Guinea-Bissau.
SIERRA LEONE: Rebels clash with ECOMOG forces
An estimated 200 rebels loyal to the ousted military junta in Sierra Leone launched a surprise attack on soldiers of the Nigerian-led West African intervention force this week in the northern town of Kabala, the BBC reported.
It quoted ECOMOG commander, General Maxwell Khobe as saying the battle on Monday started when about 200 rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), arrived in Kabala, saying they wanted to take advantage of an amnesty. With white truce flags, two groups of rebels approached tables specially set up to register the surrender of their weapons. Then a third group wearing red scarves rushed out of the bush, and instead of surrendering, they attacked the ECOMOG forces, the BBC said.
Although casualty figures were not given, it said the number of people killed was likely to be "very high".
Sankoh appeals for ceasefire
The fighting came the day after the imprisoned leader of the rebels, Foday Sankoh, called on his men to lay down their arms. The leader of Sierra Leone's Sankoh was extradited from Nigeria at the weekend and made a televised appeal to his supporters to stop fighting. The RUF supported the military junta overthrown by ECOMOG troops in February when Sierra Leone's democratically elected government was re-installed. Although the junta was beaten, RUF rebels have continued to fight in rural areas where they have committed widespread atrocities against civilians.
Sierra Leone officials as said Sankoh, who was handcuffed during his brief television appearance, would face trial for crimes against humanity. But an ECOMOG spokesman said it was too early to talk about Sankoh standing trial for his part in the ousting of President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah last year. Sierra Leone's government has so far put some 38 members of the military junta on trial for treason.
NIGERIA: Abubakar reiterates democracy pledge
The Nigerian leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, this week reiterated his pledge to hand power to a democratically elected civilian government in May next year. In remarks at a news conference in the capital Abuja, on Wednesday Abubakar was asked whether the transition plan was "for real". He responded by saying: "For real, we hope, come 29 May, 1999, we will hand over to a democratically elected government."
Since taking on the Nigerian leadership on 9 June after the sudden death of the hardline military ruler, General Sani Abacha, Abubakar has released scores of political prisoners, abolished the five official parties established by his predecessor, allowed Nigerians to form new parties and political alliances, and invited the international community to monitor next year's election. This week news media quoted the prison authorities as saying about 1,000 prisoners of all categories had so far been released.
Last Friday, one of Nigeria's main opposition groups, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), formally welcomed Abubakar's decision allowing political parties to organise freely ahead the elections. In a statement to news media NADECO said it welcomed Abubakar's decision "to allow complete freedom of association in the formation of political parties and the government's resolve not to interfere in any way with their funding or operations.''
NADECO's position was described as less radical than that of other smaller groups in Nigeria's southwest which have dismissed Abubakar's transition pledge as a sham.
This week, in Nigeria's southwestern Edo State rival politicians took advantage of the Abubakar offer and formed two new interest groups to fight for the Edo cause, AFP reported. Tony Anenih, an Edo and the former chairman of a political group which ran in the country's last elections in 1993, announced the formation of the Edo People's Congress. Another prominent politician, Samuel Ogbemudia, announced a new group he called the Edo Mass Movement.
Meanwhile, key figures in one of the Abacha parties dissolved last week, have regrouped as a new political party, according to news reports. AFP said some 2,000 officials of the defunct United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP) had voted to name their new party the United Nigeria People's Party (UNPP). Abubakar has said that all new political parties would have to register with an independent commission.
Muslims seek release of leader
In northern Nigeria, Muslim activists have demanded the release of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zak Zaky, the BBC reported on Tuesday. Zaky, arrested two years ago and charged with stirring up religious strife, was described by his followers as a prisoner of conscience detained for his religious beliefs. The activists said no members of their group, the Muslim Brotherhood, had benefited from the Abubakar amnesties.
Nigerian police have shot and killed a protestor this week when some 1,000 youths went on the rampage outside Warri in the southwestern Delta State in a dispute with Mobil Oil over compensation for oil spills in the area. AFP quoting a senior police officer on Wednesday said 15 others were injured.
Earlier in the week, Royal Dutch Shell announced a "minor oil spill" from one of its pipelines in southern Nigeria. News reports quoted Shell as saying 1,850 bbl had spilled at the weekend in the southern Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. Shell which said it was conducting an investigation to establish the cause of the spill.
Air link with Britain restored
In a further sign of diplomatic thaw in its relations with the outside world, Nigeria on Friday announced the restoration of its air link with Britain. The link was severed in May last year in what was largely seen as a politically motivated gesture by General Abacha.
NIGER: Rebel attack kills 15
Some 15 people were killed and six wounded on Friday when rebels in Niger attacked a village in the eastern province of N'Guigmi, AFP reported. It said state media blamed the attack on the Front Democratique Revolutionaire (FDR), which has reportedly operated for some four years in the extreme southeast of the country near the border with Nigeria and Chad.
The FDR claims control of Manga and Kawar regions from the Niamey government. It is the only rebel group not to have signed a recent peace accord, which saw northern separatists brought into the peace process, media reports said. New powers for interior minister.
Malaria kills more than AIDS
Malaria has killed between 150,000 and 250,000 people in Niger since 1990, AFP reported this week quoting Ministry of health figures. More than two million cases of malaria were recorded across the country in 1990 and 1991 and a further 850,000 cases every year since. According to WHO statistics, AIDS has killed some 25,000 people in Niger. The figures were announced at the launch of an awareness campaign to coincide with the onset of the rainy season.
Throughout the week, delegates from around Liberia discussed the country's future at a national unity conference. News reports said while delegates called on the government to do more to guarantee security and attract Western investors, President Charles Taylor pledged to uphold his commitments to human rights and freedom of the press.
Independent Star Radio also quoted Taylor as saying Liberians had to transcend ethnicity and tribalism. But according to Reuters, prominent speakers told the conference that "trigger-happy" security forces were undermining Taylor's efforts.
A long-time advisor in Liberia, retired US general Robert Yerks, deplored what he described as the continued arbitrary arrest and detention of Liberians. According to media reports, the continued circulation of weapons and failure of factions, including Taylor's National Patriotic Front for Liberia (NPFL), to disband has further heightened security fears.
EQUATORIAL GUINEA: Government seeks radio closure
The governing Parti Democratique de Guinee Equatoriale this week asked the Spanish government to close down the "provocative" 'Radio Exterior' broadcasting station, AFP reported on Tuesday. The Spanish-based shortwave station "contributes nationally and internationally at discrediting our authorities and our people," party spokesman Santiago Ngua was quoted as saying in an interview with 'Radio Exterior' itself.
The government of Equatorial Guinea, which recently drew criticism from Amnesty International and European governments for the conduct of a treason trial arising out of alleged separatist attacks in the main island of Malabo in January, has repeatedly asked Madrid to close the station down.
New torture concerns
Amnesty said last week announced the arrest and detention of Jose Olo Obono, a lawyer who recently publicly denounced the torture of detainees in Equatorial Guinea. "Torture takes place on a regular basis at the station and six people have died after being tortured since January 1998. There are grave fears that Jose Olo Obono may also be tortured and ill-treated," Amnesty said.
It also said he was reportedly being treated in a degrading way, with only a cardboard box for use as a toilet. Obono and eight other lawyers defended over 110 people accused of involvement in the January attacks. Fifteen of them were sentenced to death, some 70 to various terms of imprisonment.
Since sentences were passed on 1 June 1998, several prisoners have reportedly fallen ill as a result of the harsh prison conditions, Amnesty said. One inmate, Martin Puye, 58, a leader of the Movimiento para la Auto-determinacion de la Isla de Bioko (MAIB), died in hospital on 14 July, reportedly as a result of ill-treatment and lack of adequate medical care in custody.
TOGO: Eyadema sworn in
Togo's president, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, was sworn in on Friday for his final five-year mandate, media reports said. According to AFP, the ceremony took place in the capital, Lome, before the constitutional court, members of parliament and visiting heads of state from Benin, Niger, and Cote d'Ivoire.
WEST AFRICA: Conflict prevention
Defence and interior ministers from the Economic Community of West African States meeting last week in The Gambia's capital, Banjul, have set up a new working group on conflict prevention. A dispatch quoting an ECOWAS statement at the weekend said it would intervene in the internal affairs of member states when a there was risk of humanitarian crisis, sub-regional security was threatened or if a democratic government was in danger of being toppled.
The meeting also reportedly undertook to seek a moratorium on the manufacture, export and import of small arms in the region and other measures to combat crime and drugs trafficking.
Cotton production soars
New figures on cotton production in French-speaking West Africa have showed the region has produced a record crop of over 2.25 million mt during the latest season, the BBC reported on Thursday. The figures were released by the Compagnie Francaise pour le Developpement des Textiles, (CFDT), which has maintained a dominant stake in regional cotton production for some 40 years. According to the BBC, CFDT has been resisting demands by the World Bank for partial privatisation of the cotton industry in West Africa.
Abidjan, 31 July 1998
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