March 3, 2009 in Nation/World

Nation faces power vacuum

Guinea-Bissau’s leader, army chief assassinated
Assimo Balde And Rukmini Callimachi Associated Press
 
Thierry Charlier photo

Vieira
(Full-size photo)

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau – The man who ruled this small African nation for nearly a quarter-century was assassinated Monday just hours after a bomb killed his longtime rival, the armed forces chief, leaving behind a precarious power vacuum as the country struggles to stem a booming cocaine trade.

Analysts fear the back-to-back assassinations could shake up drug cartels that use the country as a transit point for shipping cocaine to Europe, leading to new alliances.

President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira had ruled Guinea-Bissau for 22 of the past 29 years, surviving numerous attempted coups, including one four months ago when gunmen opened fire on his home. Vieira later complained that the military had failed to intervene, leaving his bodyguards to fend off the attackers alone.

Tension between him and the head of the army escalated further in January, when Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie received a call from the president’s office, asking him to come at once, said his chief of staff, Lt. Col. Bwam Namtcho. Waie rushed outside and was nearly killed when assailants opened fire on his car, a sequence of events that prompted Waie to believe the attack had been ordered by Vieira.

On Sunday, the army chief was killed when a bomb hidden beneath the staircase in his office exploded, said Namtcho.

Hours later, volleys of automatic gunfire rang out for at least two hours before dawn outside Vieira’s palace. Military spokesman Zamora Induta denied the military had killed Vieira in retaliation for Waie’s assassination, instead calling the attackers “an isolated group” and vowing to pursue them.

The former Portuguese colony has suffered multiple coups and attempted coups since 1980, when Vieira himself took power in one. His relationship with the army was always an uneasy one, fueled by a continuing power struggle as well as ethnic differences. Whereas most army officers are Balanta, the country’s dominant ethnic group, Vieira was Papel, a far smaller ethnicity representing just 5 percent of the population.

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