Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Officials' release helps talks in Sao Tome

POST-COUP NEGOTIATIONS Mediators are holding discussions with junta leaders but the big question is the future role of deposed president Fradique de Menezes


Sao Tome and Principe's putsch-ists and international mediators were set to continue talks yesterday, as the deposed president of the west African archipelago insisted the coup leaders return to their barracks before he negotiate with them.

Monday's talks between a 30-strong mediation team and army rebels led by Major Fernando Pereira took place amid signs of progress, after the late-night release of seven ministers and a legal adviser, held since last week's coup.

The officials were freed after Pereira and the head mediator, Congolese Foreign Minister Rodolphe Adada, agreed that they would be placed under military surveillance at their homes -- as were three women ministers freed earlier -- and barred from trying to "exert any pressure" on negotiations.

The mediator and the junta both hailed the officials' release as a breakthrough that would help pave a way out of the crisis.

Deposed president Fradique de Menezes welcomed the move, but still felt that those responsible for last Wednesday's power grab had not yet fulfilled all the conditions necessary for his return, his spokes-man said Monday.

Guillaume Neto, media adviser to the ousted leader who has been stranded in the Nigerian capital, said the release of the government figures had been one of the preconditions for his return.

"The conditions for his return are that the prisoners are liberated, the military return to their barracks and that constitutional order be restored," Neto said by telephone from de Menezes' Abuja hotel.

"Once those conditions are met the president can return home and discuss the military's concerns," he said.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo held talks with the ousted leader Monday in Abuja, during which he stressed that Nigeria was working in concert with the international mediators in Sao Tome.

Meanwhile, Pereira's putschists and the mediation team from several Portuguese-speaking and African countries, as well as the US, met at UN offices in the capital of the impoverished archipelago in west Africa's Gulf of Guinea.

The negotiators represent eight countries -- Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Congo, Gabon, Mozam-bique, Nigeria and Portugal. The talks are also being held under the auspices of the African Union, which has expressed its determination to end military takeovers and civil wars in Africa. The rebel delegation includes seven military and three members of the Christian Democratic Front (FDC), which is not represented in parliament.

The FDC head Arlesio Costa, not an army member, also attended the talks wearing military fatigues. Political sources have said Costa was the real coup leader.

Despite de Menezes's isolation in neighboring Nigeria, he was seen by several diplomats participating in the Sao Tome talks as being the best choice for the leadership of the impoverished island nation.

But others in Sao Tome were skeptical, and one source scoffed at the negotiations, calling them a "masquerade".

"This mediation isn't getting to the heart of things, and the problems will only begin again ... Fradique [de Menezes] is the real problem in Sao Tome," the source said.

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