Fri, Jul 18, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Sao Tome to see Nigerian envoy

AN OPENING The coup leaders have said that they will open the airport, which was closed after the troops seized control of the tiny country without casualties


Troops who ousted the government of this tiny, impoverished West African country and took control of the island's potential new oil wealth agreed to meet Thursday with an envoy from Nigeria's president.

A source close to the leaders of the rebellious soldiers said on condition of anonymity that they agreed to reopen the airport yesterday so the Nigerian representative's plane could land. The identity of the envoy was not known.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke by phone Wednesday with the coup leader, Major Fernando Pereira and accepted Obasanjo's proposal for a meeting with the envoy, the source said.

The troops seized control of Sao Tome and Principe, one of Africa's smallest and poorest countries, within hours on Wednesday while President Fradique de Menezes was on a visit to Nigeria.

The mutineers met no resistance and no casualties were reported.

Obasanjo is a close ally of Menezes. Nigeria shares ownership of offshore oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea with the twin island nation. Exploration of the reserves is currently open to international bids.

The uprising renewed concern over political stability in the Gulf of Guinea at a time when the West African region grows in importance as an alternative to the Middle East as a source of oil.

Sao Tome, a former Portuguese colony of about 140,000 people, has courted the US in recent years in the hope of aid and support for offshore oil exploration.

Troops detained Prime Minister Maria das Neves and other senior officials in the coup, which began with pre-dawn gunfire.

The rebellious soldiers said they would install a military junta to govern the country.

Menezes and Obasanjo condemned the coup.

"I am now making a strong appeal to all democrats, world leaders and African leaders to help us stop this kind of procedure," Menezes said in Abuja, Nigeria.

Obasanjo backed Menezes, saying "We strongly condemn this action and call on the military adventurists to hand over power."

In a statement read on state radio, the soldiers said they acted "due to the continuing social and economic decline of the country."

They pledged not to harm the officials in detention.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher deplored the military takeover: "We strongly urged those involved to release the arrested government officials."

Portugal's ambassador, Mario de Jesus Santos, met with Pereira and said the mutineers told him they are not seeking power.

The soldiers decided to act "when the living standards of the people went into a steep decline," Santos told Portugal's national news agency Lusa.

The streets of the capital were calm Wednesday afternoon and the two main markets opened for business after sporadic gunfire in the morning. The gunfire apparently was warning shots and the renegades met no armed resistance.

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