Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Rebel troops stage coup in tiny Sao Tome and Principe

By Monique Chu  /  STAFF REPORTER WITH AP

Troops rebelled and detained the prime minister yesterday in Sao Tome and Principe, one of Taiwan's diplomatic allies.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would keep a close eye on developments in the tiny island nation off western Africa, one of the world's poorest countries.

Ovidio Pequeno, the country's ambassador to Taipei, phoned the ministry yesterday afternoon to confirm the news, according to a ministry official.

Pequeno, who is in the Philippines on a business trip, was unable to offer any updated information, the official said.

"The situation regarding the coup is not yet clear," the official said.

Ko Jai-son (柯吉生), Taiwan's ambassador to the country, has been trying to find out the latest developments, the official added.

Over 20 Taiwanese based in the country are safe, the ministry said in a press release yesterday evening.

Taiwan's presence in the country consists of five embassy staffers, as well as members of the agricultural technical mission and a team helping the local government with a malaria prevention and treatment project, the press release said.

Shots were heard before dawn, and Prime Minister Maria das Neves was arrested by renegade soldiers, Portuguese state radio Radiodifusao Portuguesa reported. Other senior government officials, including Oil Minister Rafael Branco, were also detained.

Sporadic gunshots could be heard six hours later in the capital Sao Tome, though it was not clear whether the shots were from fighting or were fired into the air as a warning. No injuries were reported.

The streets of the capital were mostly empty. Public buildings and shops remained closed.

In a brief statement read over state radio Radio Nacional de Sao Tome, Major Fernando Pereira -- the head of military training and a participant in the rebellion -- ordered all government officials and lawmakers to report to central police headquarters.

The rebels have not said why they rose up or listed demands, but soldiers in recent months have complained about low pay and poor living conditions. Army officers rebelled in 1995, forcing the government to step down and hold new elections.

The radio played mostly music. State television was not broadcasting.

President Fradique de Menezes was out of the country on a private visit to Nigeria.

The rebellious soldiers took control of the presidential palace, the parliament building and the airport, the radio report said. They also seized the central bank premises and the state radio and television headquarters.

The Portuguese ambassador in Sao Tome, Mario de Jesus Santos, said the city was calm.

"We are waiting for some clarification from the leaders [of the revolt] as to what they want," he told Portuguese radio.

Mozambique's President Joaquim Chissano, who is also current president of the African Union, urged the mutineers to give up their apparent power grab.

"We condemn this coup and demand that its perpetrators restore constitutional order," Chissano said, according to the Portuguese national news agency Lusa.

Das Neves was the country's first woman prime minister. She was appointed in October of last year in a Cabinet reshuffle by Menezes.

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