Coup applauded by politicians and ordinary people

Guinea-Bissau’s new military leaders met on Monday with politicians, civil society representatives and religious leaders, many of whom congratulated coup leader General Verissimo Correia Seabra for removing the chaotic civilian government of ex-president Kumba Yala.

Carlos Gomes, leader of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which ruled the small West African country until 1999, said the army had saved democracy.

Francisco Fadul, the head of the interim government which ruled Guinea-Bissau in the period leading up to elections in 2000 which brought Kumba Yala to power, also welcomed his overthrow. He said the army had saved the country from dictatorship.

Fernando Gomes, the leader of the United Popular Alliance, also congratulated the military for intervening.

However, the Guinea-Bissau Resistance - Bafata Movement, an estranged former ally of Kumba Yala, said it regretted that the coup had upset constitutional order. The party said it was important that fresh elections be held soon.

In the streets of the capital Bissau, ordinary people greeted Sunday's bloodless coup with a sense of relief following three years of incessant government reshuffles and repeated strikes by civil servants demanding their unpaid wages.

The new authorities scrapped a dawn to dusk curfew imposed 24 hours earlier and lifted restrictions which had been placed temporarily on the free movement of vehicles and people. Shops and markets reopened and the authorities reopened the airport and the land frontiers with Senegal and Guinea-Conakry.

The six-hour meeting between army commanders and political and civil society leaders focused on the formation of a transitional government to lead this former Portuguese colony into fresh elections next year, but no ministerial appointments were announced.

The new administration is due to be backed by a broad-based consultative body to be called the national transitional council.

The meeting ended with a joint resolution strongly backing Sunday’s coup. The resolution said the army's removal of Kumba Yala had rescued Guinea-Bissau from the prospect of civil war. It welcomed the coup leaders’ commitment to holding elections and called on the international community to give formal recognition to the 32-member Committee for the Restoration of Constitutional and Democratic Order (CMROCD) which has effectively siezed power.

Correia Seabra stressed that he was strictly an interim leader and pledged to hand over power to “a credible civilian figure.” He has so far declined to say when elections would be held, but participants at the meeting said it would not be before the end of this year.

The army intervened 48 hours after the National Electoral Commission said voters' lists would not be ready in time to conduct free and fair parliamentary elections on 12 October that had been postponed four times already.

While there were no public demonstrations in support of the coup, the military intervention was broadly welcomed in this desperately poor country of 1.3 million people.

Ordinary citizens, chatting on buses or in taxis, said the coup should have happened long ago. They were adamant that Kumba Yala and deposed Prime Minister Mario Pires were overwhelmingly to blame for the country's difficult economic situation. Most civil servants had not been paid for up to nine months.

The main trade union organisation, the National Union of Guinean Workers (UNTG), called off a general strike it had been trying to organise in protest at Kumba Yala's erratic rule and urged people to go into work as usual.

Kumba Yala and Pires were both allowed to return home on Monday morning, but were placed under house arrest.

Although the coup was generally greeted as a welcome fait accompli at home, it continued to draw criticism abroad.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the putsch and called “on the parties concerned not to resort to any acts of violence or retribution”.

South Africa expressed its “unequivocal condemnation” of the military takeover, joining Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tome and the African Union in condemning Correia Seabra for seizing power

But there was no sign of a concerted campaign to have Kumba Yala reinstated, like that which forced coup leaders in the island state of Sao Tome and Principe to back down in July and allow elected president Fradique de Menezes to return to power a week after he was overthrown.

Even organisations which would normally be strongly opposed to military intervention voiced little sympathy for the departed civilian leader.

The human rights organisation RADDHO in neighbouring Senegal described Kumba Yala as “an ethnocratic head of state who did absolutely nothing to prevent what happened to him”.

Yala had been widely accused of favouring members of his own Balante ethnic group and of discriminating against Muslims who comprise nearly half the population.

Foreign governments have already initiated diplomatic contacts with the military leaders in Guinea-Bissau.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has deployed 650 soldiers from Guinea-Bissau as part of its peacekeeping force in Liberia, was due to send a delegation of ministers to Bissau late on Monday. .

Meeting in Lisbon on Monday, ambassadors from members of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP) came out against the coup and appealed for the reestablishment of order. But they also urged the meeting of soldiers and civilians in Bissau “to obtain solutions to the country’s problems through dialogue.”