Troops in Guinea-Bissau staged a coup attempt late on Thursday, attacking the prime minister’s residence, arresting politicians and taking over the ruling party headquarters amid a media blackout.
Gunshots and rocket-propelled grenades were fired in the darkened streets of the capital of the former Portuguese colony, which is in the middle of a bitterly disputed two-round presidential election.
Soldiers attacked the residence of the winner of the first round, outgoing Bissau-Guinean Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, whose whereabouts were unknown.
“It was attacked with rocket--propelled grenades and we were forced to retreat,” a police officer who had guarded the building said. He said that Gomes had been there earlier, but could not give his current location.
“There was a panic and a riposte from our colleagues. He [Gomes] attempted to get out amid the confusion. I do not know what happened after that because I too looked to get out of there,” he added.
A military source said: “We are actively seeking Carlos Gomes Junior. Regardless of where he is hiding, we will track him down before dawn.”
The sound of gunshots could be heard for about an hour, centered around the prime minister’s residence, before relative calm returned to the capital.
Several political figures were “arrested” in the capital and taken to the army headquarters of Amura, near the coast, a military source said on condition of anonymity.
“They are with us in the Amura fortress, the headquarters,” he added, without revealing the identities of any of those seized.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) swiftly condemned the attempted coup, announced by Ivorian Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Kablan Duncan in Abidjan.
“We have received some difficult information from Guinea--Bissau and this information indicates to us that there is a coup underway,” the minister told reporters after a meeting of the 15-nation regional group in Mali.
“ECOWAS formally and rigorously condemns such an attempted coup d’etat,” he added.
On the ground, ambulance sirens were heard across Bissau, which was plunged into darkness as electricity was cut off, while civilians stayed off the streets.
Soldiers earlier took control of the ruling party headquarters, where at least 20 troops were deployed, and the national radio station, which stopped broadcasts as did state television.
Troops also formed a cordon around the presidential palace and the fate of interim Bissau-Guinean President Raimundo Pereira was not immediately known.
Soldiers, in groups of four or five and armed with rocket--launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles, patrolled the main roads of Bissau.
They were posted outside the UN office in the capital and at embassies.
No casualty figures were available. There were no signs at the Simao Mendes central hospital of any early casualties of the attempted coup.
Violence had been feared for days in the election period in the impoverished country, which has a history of political violence and is considered a major drug trafficking hub between South America and Europe.
Guinea-Bissau’s opposition — led by former Bissau-Guinean president Kumba Yala, — claims the first-round vote was rigged and has called for a boycott of the April 29 run-off vote.
The five main opposition candidates including Yala said at a joint press conference on Thursday that the boycott was in the name of “justice.”