BISSAU (Reuters) – Soldiers killed Guinea-Bissau’s President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira yesterday in an apparent revenge attack for the slaying of the army chief of the unstable West African country.
Gunfire resounded in Bissau city in the early hours, subsiding at first light.
The armed forces said they were managing the crisis and would respect democratic institutions in the nation that has become a key transit point for drug smuggling.
“The death of Head of State Joao Bernardo Vieira is confirmed. His wife is at the Angolan embassy,” Sandji Fati, a retired army colonel and close associate of the slain president, told Reuters in the former Portuguese colony’s capital Bissau.
The United Nations, African Union, EU, Portugal and United States condemned the killings and urged the restoration of order. West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the community of Portuguese-speaking countries said they would send delegations to the tiny nation.
Vieira died in his house, having refused to leave with Angolan diplomats who took his wife to safety, Fati said.
The country’s 1.6 million people have endured years of instability since independence in 1974. This has been fuelled in recent years by West Africa’s emergence as a key transit point in the smuggling of Latin American cocaine to Europe.
Vieira was a former military ruler who was ousted after a civil war in the 1990s and returned to power in a 2005 election. He had been at odds with armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Wai, who was killed in an attack on Sunday.
A security source said soldiers from Na Wai’s Balante ethnic group led the attack on Vieira, who is from the smaller Papel community, and looted his home afterwards.
“Tagme always said that his and the president’s fate were linked and if he died, so would the president,” the source said.
US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid urged an end to violence and said government should be run by peaceful means.
“The perpetrators of these crimes should be brought to justice,” he told reporters.
The AU called the killings “cowardly and heinous attacks.”
Portugal offered to help to restore constitutional rule.
“We have been in direct contact throughout the night with the prime minister of Guinea-Bissau precisely to guarantee that the process does not slide into a situation of generalised conflict,” Foreign Minister Luis Amado said on SIC television.
Tensions are rife within Bissau’s political establishment and security forces after a series of attacks on leaders.
In January, the armed forces command said militiamen hired to protect Vieira had shot at Na Wai. The militia denied the shooting had been an assassination attempt but the army nevertheless ordered the militia be disbanded.
The 400-strong force had been recruited as Vieira’s personal bodyguard by the Interior Ministry after the president’s house was targeted by heavy weapons late last year. A policeman said soldiers loyal to Na Wai had freed people accused of that attack ahead of the president’s death yesterday.
Some analysts see potential for a fresh start with the removal of two figures who have been central to years of crises. Others, however, fear it could spell yet more chaos.
According to the constitution, if the president dies, the speaker of parliament runs the country until new elections.
Following a bloody independence war, Guinea-Bissau’s military has long been involved in politics. The military issued a statement yesterday saying that the situation was under control and it would respect democratic institutions.
“A commission of military chiefs has been set up to manage the crisis,” the statement said, without saying if they were referring to political as well as military matters.
The government announced state funerals for the slain men and called for investigations into the events that led to their deaths.
Analysts say political instability has been exacerbated in the past few years as Latin American drugs gangs have taken advantage of Guinea-Bissau’s poorly policed coastline and remote airstrips to smuggle cocaine through Africa to Europe.
They say well-resourced drug cartels with access to weapons, speedboats and planes have been able to secure cooperation from senior officials in the armed forces and government in one of the world’s poorest countries, whose main export is cashew nuts.