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GUINEA-BISSAU: Nino Vieira returns from exile to a hero's welcome

bissau, 7 April 2005 (IRIN) - Former president Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira returned to Guinea-Bissau on Thursday after six years of exile in Portugal to a hero's welcome.

A cheering crowd of more than 5,000 people greeted the former army general as he flew into Bissau's main soccer stadium aboard the official helicopter of Guinea-Conakry President Lansana Conte, an old friend and ally.

They cried out "Kabi! Kabi!" Vieira's nom de guerre when he fought as a guerrilla commander against Portuguese colonial rule in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Vieira seized power in Guinea-Bissau in a military coup in 1980 and ruled this West African country of 1.3 million people for 18 years until he was forced to quit power in 1999 towards the end of a bitter civil war.

Vieira told the crowd who greeted him that he had come back to claim his rights as a citizen and to work for peace and reconciliation in the small West African country. He asked for forgiveness for the hurt he had caused others in the past and said he had forgiven all his old enemies

But the former head of state did not say whether he aimed to stand as a candidate in presidential elections planned for 19 June.

"I am coming back to my homeland to re-establish my civic rights and to register to vote in the coming elections. I am here to help my country and my people to overcome the great difficulties which they have faced in recent years," Vieira told reporters on arrival at his house.

"I also want to say that I am willing to help contribute towards peace and stability in my country," he added.

Vieira is legally banned from returning to political life at present, but that may change if parliament votes through a controversial amnesty law that is due to come up for discussion in early May

It would cover all political crimes committed between the 1980 coup which brought Vieira to power and the assassination of General Verissimo Correia Seabra by mutinous soldiers in October last year.

The amnesty might also ease the way for another controversial figure from Guinea-Bissau's past to make a political comeback.

Former president Kumba Yala, who was deposed by a bloodless coup in September 2003 was subsequently banned from political activity under the terms of a transitional charter to govern Guinea-Bissau's phased return to constitutional government.

But last month he was overwhelmingly chosen as the presidential candidate of his Social Renovation Party (PRS), the largest opposition group in parliament.

The ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), in whose name Vieira ruled the country for two decades, viewed the return of its former leader with mixed emotions.

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, who has already arranged for Malam Bacai Sanha to run as the PAIGC candidate in the June presidential election, said recently that he could not guarantee Vieira's safety if he returned.

But plenty of heavyweight PAIGC leaders were on hand to greet the former head of state as the crowds surged in around his helicopter.

They included Aristides Gomes, the party's first vice-president, Cipriano Cassama, the leader of the PAIGC parliamentary group, and Helder Proenca, a member of its influential political bureau.

Supporters of Vieira, who include influential businessmen and the leaders of some small opposition parties, have presented a petition of 30,000 signatures urging him to stand once more for the presidency.

The international community has expressed concern that the June election may become dominated by Vieira and Yala, two controversial figures from the past whose return to power could endanger the future peace and stability of this extremely poor country, whose main export is cashew-nuts.

Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative to West Africa, noted in a statement issued on 29 March that political tensions in the country were increasing.

"He strongly urges all key political stake-holders, in particular former high officials, to resist the temptation of political manipulation on ethnic and religious grounds. He appeals to them to refrain from any action that could divide the country, the army and its institutions," the statement said.

Ould Abdallah's concerns were subsequently echoed by the UN Security Council, which expressed "deep concern that peace efforts had not yet generated social and economic benefits for the population that could discourage the use of force."

It particularly expressed concern at the PRS decision to adopt Yala, who is widely viewed as a disruptive and incompetent figure, as its presidential candidate.

Theme (s): Conflict, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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