Guinea-Bissau leader survives post-election attack

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(Adds address to nation by president, march by supporters)

By Alberto Dabo

BISSAU, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Guinea-Bissau's President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira survived an attack by renegade soldiers early on Sunday, two days after the results of parliamentary elections were rejected by an opposition leader.

The machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attack on Vieira's residence betrayed political and military tensions in the small, poor West African state, which has suffered a string of coups and uprisings since independence from Portugal in 1974.

Diplomats said it appeared the attempt to kill or depose Vieira came from a dissident faction within the armed forces, either in protest at the results of the Nov. 16 elections, or because of other grievances in the military.

Addressing the nation hours after the attack, Vieira condemned the attempt to seize power by "ill-intentioned and anti-democratic citizens". Praising the armed forces for foiling the attackers, he asked citizens, political chiefs and parties to "unequivocably respect the verdict of the ballot box".

Foreign donors say the small cashew nut-exporting nation urgently needs political stability to resist the powerful Latin American cocaine cartels which use its territory as a storage and transport hub to smuggle tonnes of drugs into Europe.

After visiting Vieira at his gunfire-damaged residence, Shola Omoregie, the U.N. Secretary-General's representative in Guinea-Bissau, urged political and military figures and factions not to settle complaints by force, but through legal channels.

"The situation is very serious," Omoregie said.

Interior Minister Cipriano Cassama said one presidential bodyguard was killed in the assault and another wounded. Armed troops guarded the presidential residence on Sunday.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Batista Tagme Na Wai, who has had a troubled and often tense relationship with Vieira in the past, said the attackers were soldiers. "Five have been arrested and the situation is under control," he told reporters.

Several hundred supporters of Vieira later marched to his residence shouting "the people of Guinea-Bissau want peace".

On Friday, Guinea-Bissau's national electoral commission had announced that the former ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) had won 67 of 100 National Assembly seats in the polls held a week ago.

These results were immediately rejected as rigged by a major political rival of Vieira, opposition leader and former president Koumba Yala. Yala is from the Balante ethnic group and enjoys support in the Balante-dominated armed forces, whose restive members have launched bloody mutinies in the past.

Yala's Social Renewal Party (PRS) gained 28 seats in the vote, making it the second strongest after the PAIGC.


Sunday's attackers, believed to be low-ranking soldiers, were either acting in support of Yala, or could be disgruntled Balante associates of a Balante former navy chief, Rear-Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who fled the country in August after being accused of plotting a coup, diplomats said.

Security experts said the incident highlighted the need to reform Guinea-Bissau's bloated and ill-disciplined armed forces, which total nearly 4,500, over 3,000 of them officers.

"It reinforces the necessity to rebuild the armed forces and police," Spanish General Juan Esteban Verastegui, who heads a European Union security reform mission in Bissau, told Reuters.

Yala on Friday accused interior ministry police of trying to arrest him. He had been ordered to present himself to the authorities to answer a criminal complaint filed by Vieira over election campaign allegations made by Yala in which he accused the president of involvement in drug-trafficking.

The African Union condemned the attack on Vieira's home and said it would not accept any takeover by force in Guinea-Bissau.

The front of Vieira's house in the Tchon de Pepel district of the capital showed the marks of bullets and rocket propelled grenades fired by the attackers. Vehicles, including Vieira's bullet-proof Hummer, were also damaged by gunfire.

The attack followed voting a week ago praised as calm and well-organised by observers. Turnout was high at 82 percent.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who received an overnight phone call from Vieira alerting him about the attack, sent troop reinforcements to the border with Guinea-Bissau.

Senegalese troops had previously intervened in support of Vieira in a brief but bitter 1998/99 civil war which eventually overthrew him after nearly two decades in power. Rival Yala took over after winning a presidential election in early 2000 but was himself deposed in a coup three years later.

Vieira returned to office in 2005 after returning from exile and winning a presidential election.

(Additional reporting by Wangui Kanina in Nairobi and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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