Kumba Yala agrees to accept election defeat while insisting he won

Kumba Yala, the mercurial former president of Guinea-Bissau, has finally agreed to accept defeat in his country's latest presidential election, clearing the way for a second round run-off between his two main rivals, Malam Bacai Sanha and Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira.

“In the interests of peace and of stability for the nation of Guinea-Bissau, I accept the results of the first round of the presidential election,” Yala said at a news conference in the Senegalese capital on Monday night.

However, while conceding that he would accept the elections results "in the way that they have been announced," Yala continued to insist that he was the real winner of the first round of voting on 19 June.

"I know that I won the elections with 38 percent, against 28 percent for Malam Bacai Sanha and 26 percent for Nino Vieira. They changed the results and my result was given to Malam Bacai, while his own result was attributed to Nino," Yala said in a statement to reporters after all three candidates had held a fresh round of talks with President Abdoulaye Wade of neighbouring Senegal.

The official results of the presidential election, which was praised as free, fair and well organised by several teams of international observers, put Bacai Sanha in the lead with 35.45 percent, followed by Vieira with 28.87 percent and Yala with 25.00 percent.

Announcing these final results last Saturday, Malam Mane, the chairman of Guinea-Bissau's National Electoral Commission, said the second round run-off vote between Bacai Sanha and Vieira would talk place on 17 or 24 July.

Yala, who ruled this small West African country from 2000 until his overthrow in a 2003 coup, is now out of the race. However, he will effectively act as kingmaker in the second round of the election.

Political analysts in Bissau said Yala should be able to negotiate substantial concessions with the candidate who he ultimately chooses to support. They noted that the 52-year-old philosophy teacher still commands strong loyalty from his Balanta ethnic group.

This accounts for 30 percent of Guinea-Bissau's 1.3 million population and provides the backbone of the army. It also provides solid support for Yala's Social Renovation Party (PRS), which is the main opposition party in parliament.

Yala made clear at the news conference that he still planned to return to the presidency one day.

"I am a young man and the others are old and tomorrow they will disappear," Yala said in his short speech at the Senegalese presidential palace, with Wade standing by his side.

But he promised not to make trouble for Guinea-Bissau's new leader, saying that he "rejected violence on principle."

Last Friday, three people were killed when police opened fire on a rowdy and unauthorised demonstration by several hundred of Yala's supporters. Police subsequently arrested Artur Sanha, the secretary general of the PRS, who was leading the march. He was found to be carrying a loaded handgun and two clips of ammunition.

Wade is widely seen as having a strong influence over Yala, having supported him during his three years as head of state in Guinea-Bissau.

But diplomats say the Senegalese leader is keen to have a firm understanding with whoever takes power in the former Portuguese colony in order to prevent it from once more becoming a safe haven for separatist guerrillas fighting for the independence of Senegal's southern Casamance region.

Bacai Sanha, the presidential candidate of the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAICG) and Vieira, a former military ruler, were likewise summoned to Dakar for talks with Wade to ensure the election results would be respected.

Wade told reporters that he had held three separate meetings with each of the leading presidential candidates since Saturday and had also encouraged them to negotiate a deal between themselves.

"I can assure you that I shall respect the verdict of the ballot boxes," Vieira said in his own statement on Monday night. "I am ready to help my country with the task of national construction."

The 67-year-old former army general came to power in a 1980 coup and was ousted from power 19 years later in the latter stages of a civil war. Since then he has lived in exile in Portugal.

Bacai Sanha, a former speaker of parliament, who briefly served as interim president after Vieira's overthrow in 1999, insisted on Monday night that he too was a democrat and "a man of peace and stability." The veteran politician, who is in his late 50s, pledged that he too would abide by the results of the presidential election.

Wade has repeatedly stressed that he is not trying to interfere in the domestic affairs of Guinea-Bissau, but is acting as a mediator at the request of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to help ensure the country's smooth transition back to constitutional government.

The country's current head of state is Interim President Henrique Rosa. He was appointed shortly after the 2003 coup to steer Guinea-Bissau back to democracy and will step down to make way for his elected successor.