65 senior officers readmitted to armed forces

General Tagme Na Waie, the new chief of staff of Guinea-Bissau's armed forces, has ordered the reintegration of 65 senior officers who were purged from the ranks following a civil war and various military uprisings and changes of government over the past five years.

The appointments, announced on Wednesday, provide more ethnic and political balance to the upper echelons of the armed forces, which were hitherto dominated by the Balanta ethnic group.

The Balantas account for a third of Guinea-Bissau's 1.3 million population, but they dominate the ranks of the country's 10,000-strong armed forces.

Those making a comeback include several close associates of former President Nino Vieira, who was forced to step down and go into exile in Portugal in 1999 following a brief but bloody civil war.

They also include leading figures close to General Ansumane Mane, who was killed while leading a rebellion against former President Kumba Yala in 2000.

Yala was eventually deposed in a bloodless coup led by General Verissimo Correia Seabra in September 2003.

Correia Seabra rapidly handed over the reins of power to a civilian government, and elections for a new parliament were held in March this year.

However, Correia Seabra was killed during an army mutiny in October. His death led to Na Waie's appointment as head of the armed forces. He emerged as a consensus figure put forward by the military establishment which the government felt forced to accept.

Announcing the return of officers purged from the armed forces in the central town of Bafata, Na Waie said he was determined to restore harmony and unity within the armed forces. He warned the country's elected politicians bluntly to keep their nose out of military affairs.

"We ask those in government to have confidence in the armed forces," said Na Waie, a veteran of Guinea-Bissau's war of independence against Portuguese colonial rule. "We cannot live eternally with conflicts amoung ourselves."

"We appeal to all the politicians to leave us in peace because we are not politicians," Na Waie said, stressing that the military in turn would stay out of politics. "We are just mililtary men. We appeal to the politicians to organise their parties and we will respect anyone who wins elections in this country."

Those making a comeback in the latest round of military appointments include Brigadier Humberto Gomes, a former chief of staff of the armed forces during Vieira's 19 years in power. He becomes Na Waie's principal military advisor.

Gomes is from the Papel ethnic group, to which Correia Seabra, the recently assassinated head of the armed forces, also belonged

Another resurrected figure is Commodore Mohamed Lamine Sanha, a former head of the navy and a close associate of the late General Mane. Both are from the Mandingo ethnic group. He becomes the naval advisor on Na Waie's personal staff.

Lieutenant Colonel Celestino de Carvalho, a former head of the air force under Vieira, meanwhile makes a comeback as Na Waie's counsellor on air force matters.

Following the latest army mutiny, which was led by a battalion seeking backpay owed for its period of service with the UN peacekeeping force in Liberia, there has been widespread agreement in Guinea-Bissau on the urgent need for military reform.

The size of the armed forces mushroomed during the 1998-99 civil war, but the government wants the military establishment to be slimmed down in size as pay and living conditions are improved and new equipment is provided.

A private soldier currently receives a basic wage of 19,000 CFA francs (US$38) per month and the air force does not possess a single plane capable of flying.

The military reforms are being planned with help from the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations.

The CPLP has recommended reducing the strength of the armed forces to between 3,000 and 5,000 men and closing more than half of the country's 25 military bases.