Airspace closed at Guinea-Bissau as residents flee

Guinea-Bissau military closes airspace as residents flee capital

West African country in precarious state after coup sees banks and government offices shut, and Portugal dispatch troops, Monday 16 April 2012 20.04 BST

Residents were fleeing the capital of Guinea-Bissau on Monday, while others stockpiled supplies after military chiefs shut the country’s air- and sea space following their coup four days ago.

The closure of air- and sea space followed the announcement that a Portuguese military force had been dispatched in case it became necessary to evacuate its citizens from its former west African colony. “Non-observance of this measure will imply a military response,” said a communique announcing the move by Guinea-Bissau’s military chiefs. Lisbon has denounced the coup as illegal.

Ordinary people appeared to be bracing themselves for the worst as it became clear that last week’s coup – in which soldiers seized the country’s civilian leaders and cut short a presidential election – had created an unpredictable power vacuum.

With Guinea-Bissau’s army leaders appealing for calm, banks and government offices closed in the capital Bissau, and families and individuals packed the bus station seeking transport to what they believed would be safer locations in the interior.

“I’m worried there’s going to be a war. So I’m going to my village, at Sao Domingos, I’m leaving with my five children,” Djenabou Bari, who is in her 40s, told Reuters.

Foreign governments and organisations have roundly condemned the latest putsch by the military, which has a history of revolts and uprisings. It has more recently been accused of involvement in drug-smuggling.

A high-level delegation from the west African regional grouping Ecowas was due to fly to Bissau to tell military leaders their actions were “unacceptable”. Military sources said the delegation would be authorised to enter the country.

Since soldiers arrested the interim president, Raimundo Pereira, as well as the former prime minister and presidential frontrunner Carlos Gomes Jr on Thursday, Guinea-Bissau’s military chiefs have been struggling to put a credible administration in place.

Gomes was unpopular with them because he backed an initiative to downsize the army.

On Sunday, the military said it had formed a “national transition council” with some of the country’s political parties, though the main PAIGC party refused to participate in what it called the army’s “unconstitutional” initiatives.

The military has asked the political parties to organise a transition to fresh elections.

In a sign of protest, workers stayed away from government offices on Monday. “The government doesn’t exist and in such a situation we have no bosses,” Estevao Gomes, secretary-general of the main UNTG union, said.

It was the second coup in west Africa in a month, following a takeover by military officers in Mali on 22 March that dealt a setback to efforts to consolidate democracy in a region still rent by ethnic and religious faultlines. Mali’s coup leaders have now handed back power to a civilian president.

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