Unpaid soldiers demonstrate in capital, detain military chief

Several dozen heavily armed soldiers marched through the capital of Guinea-Bissau and detained the head of the armed forces on Wednesday to demand the immediate payment of arrears owed to them for their service in the UN peacekeeping force in Liberia.

The demonstration initially created panic among diplomats and aid workers in the small West African country who thought they were witnessing a fresh coup.

However, several soldiers told IRIN they were only demanding back payments of their salaries, amounting to US$1,428 each, for the nine months they had spent in Liberia. A batallion of 600 Guinea-Bissau troops returned from peacekeeping duties in Liberia in July.

No shots were fired during the soldiers' protest and markets, shops and government offices in the city of Bissau remained open.

"This is not a coup, nor a revolt against the government. This revolt is directed against our own commanders who want to keep our money for themselves. But we are not going to put up with that," one of the protesting soldiers, who identified himself as Joao Cabi, told IRIN.

"People can go about their normal life. They can go to the beach and swim, if they want. We don't have a bone to pick with anyone," he added.

Military sources said the protesting soldiers had detained General Verissimo Correia Seabra, the chief of the armed forces, who himself headed a bloodless coup on 14 September last year to remove former president Kumba Yala.

Several other military chiefs had gone into hiding to avoid the soldiers' wrath, they added.

Correia Seabra rapidly handed over power last year to a civilian-led transitional government which held parliamentary elections in March to return Guinea-Bissau to democracy. Presidential elections are due to be held next March.

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior tried to calm down the protesting soldiers by announcing publicly that his cash-strapped government had begun paying the army its salary arrears on Tuesday.

He roundly condemned the radicalisation of the pay dispute and accused unnamed opposition groups of encouraging the soldiers' street protest.

A government team, led by Foreign Minister Soares Sambu, was locked in negotiations with the protesting soldiers at the navy headquarters in Bissau for over five hours to try to resolve the dispute, with the UN Secretary General's Special Representative in Joao Bernardo Ondwana also in the room.

The trial of eight military officers accused of staging a failed coup against former president Yala in December 2001 was due to have begun in Bissau on Wednesday. However, in view of the pay revolt in the army it was adjourned indefinitely.

Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony of 1.3 million people, is one of the poorest countries in Africa.

Its government has suffered chronic problems for several years in paying civil servants and members of the armed forces on time.

However, the country has received a boost in foreign aid since Yala's chaotic regime was ousted last year, with some of the funds earmarked for eliminating salary arrears.