Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Sao Tome coup leaders release speaker

POWER TALKS The rebel troops who overthrew the government still hold a number of senior officials but have agreed to hold discussions on reinstating the president


Coup leaders on Sao Tome and Principe agreed on Friday to the possible return of the president they ousted two days ago, raising hopes of an end to the military takeover of the potential oil exporting islands.

The coup leaders freed one of the senior members of government they imprisoned during their putsch after striking a deal which calls for talks on the conditions for President Fradique de Menezes to return to power.

US and Portuguese diplomats brokered the deal to ease tensions over the West African island state, where regional heavyweight Nigeria has hinted at the possibility of military intervention to reverse the army takeover.

A copy of the deal said coup leader Major Fernando Pereira had agreed to talks with the US, the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) and Nigeria, where Menezes was on a visit at the time of the coup.

Witnesses said the coup leaders had freed the speaker of parliament, Dionisio Dias, although other officials and ministers detained by the military remained in custody.

Relatives of the detainees -- who they said numbered six or seven -- called on the coup leaders to release them from holding rooms in a military barracks on the edge of the capital.

"They're scared, they are not being poorly treated, but they're very tired and things are uncertain," said a 27-year-old man related to one of the ministers, after taking in a food parcel of fish for him to eat.

African states have condemned the coup on the impoverished islands, which lie about 550km south of major oil exporter Nigeria and are a popular hideaway for game fishermen.

Nigeria had a deal with the Sao Tome government to develop potential oil reserves lying in a zone along their maritime border, which industry officials hope might yield six to 11 billion barrels of crude. Production has not yet started.

There were no reports of casualties from the coup, which began with a flurry of shooting before dawn on Wednesday.

Coup leaders held their first talks with Sao Tome's political parties on Friday, although they made no announcement after the meeting, which was due to continue yesterday.

Menezes has appealed for help to regain control of the mountainous Atlantic islands, where orchids and exotic birds flourish in rainforests clinging to volcanic slopes.

South African President Thabo Mbeki said in an Internet newsletter that democracy had to be restored in Sao Tome "as a matter of urgency." He said the current chairman of the African Union, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, had asked central African countries to "intervene," but did not say how.

A Nigerian presidential spokeswoman said the pan-continental African Union was trying to organize a meeting of central African states on the Sao Tome crisis, though she gave no date.

Sao Tome's closest central African neighbors include Cameroon, Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea. Though further away, oil-rich Angola is also influential in the archipelago, a fellow former Portuguese colony.

Angola's interior minister arrived in Congo Republic for talks on the crisis with ministers from the 11-member Economic Community of Central African States which opened on Friday.

Angola helped end a week-long 1995 coup on the islands, which straddle the equator and are home to 170,000 people. Portugal ruled Sao Tome for about five centuries before granting independence in 1975.

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