Armed forces chief killed as soldiers mutiny over pay arrears

The head of the armed forces of Guinea-Bissau, General Verissimo Correia Seabra, has been killed by mutinous soldiers demanding the immediate payment of substantial salary arrears, Defence Minister Daniel Gomes said on Thursday.

Correia Seabra and Colonel Domingos de Barros, the head of human resources, were killed at the military high command building during the early hours of the mutiny on Wednesday, he told reporters.

Portugal, the former colonial power, said an attempted coup was under way in the West African country. But the mutineers issued a statement on Thursday saying that their insurrection was a simple dispute over salaries and not an attempt to overthrow Guinea-Bissau's elected government.

"This is not a coup d'etat…this is just a pay dispute, not a disturbance or an insurrection," the statement began.

The document did not refer to the death of Correia Seabra and de Barros and the Defence Minister told reporters their killers had not yet been individually identified.

The mutiny began on Wednesday, apparently led by a battallion of 600 soldiers that served with the United Nations Mission in Liberia for nine months until July this year. Several soldiers told IRIN that they were demanding back payments amounting to US$1,428 each.

Correia Seabra was detained and several other military chiefs went into hiding. Dozens of heavily armed troops marched through the streets of the capital Bissau, but otherwise life continued as usual.

On Thursday, shops, markets and government offices remained open and the atmosphere in the city remained relaxed with no abnormal military presence on the streets.

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior accused unnamed opposition leaders of inciting the rebellion and diplomats in West Africa quickly pointed the finger at former president Kumba Yala and his supporters.

Yala was overthrown by Correia Seabra in a bloodless coup on 14 September 2003. Yala's Social Renovation Party (PRS) subsequently lost parliamentary elections in March this year to Gomes Junior's African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

The PRS has not yet spelt out its position on this week's events in Guinea-Bissau, but party leader Artur Sanha said in a radio interview that it would do so on Friday.

Diplomats said that beyond the party political conflict lay deep-seated ethnic differences. The PRS draws strong support from the Balanta ethnic group which comprises 30 percent of Guinea-Bissau's 1.3 million population and controls most of the top jobs in government. Correia Seabra was a member of the minority Papel tribe.

The mutineers held several hours of talks on Wednesday with a government delegation led by Foreign Minister Soares Sambu. The UN Secretary General's Special Representative in Guinea-Bissau, Joao Bernardo Honwana, was also present.

The mutineers were represented by General Pagme Nawai, the Inspector General of the Armed Forces, and Colonel Aniseto Naslak, the head of the the army's airborne commando unit.

On Thursday, the mutineers issued a statement signed by Major Baute Iamta Naman, a relatively unknown figure in the military hierarchy, outlining a serious of pay demands and other grievances. The document complained about poor living conditions in military barracks, rampant corruption in the high command and the lack of concern among commanders for the welfare of ordinary soldiers.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) which played a key role in putting Guinea-Bissau back on the path towards democracy after last year's coup each sent a high-level mission to the country on Thursday.

Diplomatic sources in Dakar said the ECOWAS delegation would be led by the organisation's Executive Secretary, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, and Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Ridiane Gadio. It was due to arrive in Bissau on Thursday night.

In Lisbon, a Portuguese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the CPLP delegation would be led by Jose Ramos Horta, the Foreign Minister of East Timor, who played a key role in last year's crisis, and Ovideo Pequeno, his counterpart from Sao Tome and Principe.

Guinea-Bissau's cabinet met for an emergency session on Thursday morning. Ministers were tight-lipped as they emerged from the meeting.

Interim President Henrique Rosa later chaired a fresh round of talks between the government and the armed forces mutineers at the presidential palace, again with the UN representative in Guinea-Bissau, in attendance.

Rosa, a respected businessman who oversaw Guinea-Bissau's first multi-party elections in 1994, was chosen by consensus after last year's coup to be head of state until presidential elections are held in March 2005.