G.Bissau president says survived deadly coup bid, situation 'under control'
A soldier patrol the government palace area in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau, on February 1, 2022. Sustained gunfire was heard near the seat of government in the coup-prone West African state of Guinea-Bissau, AFP reporters said, as a regional bloc condemned what it called an "attempted coup". Heavily-armed men surrounded the Palace of Government, where President Umaro Sissoco Embalo and Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam were believed to have gone to attend a cabinet meeting. (AFPTV teams / AFP)
(AFP) - Guinea-Bissau's president on Tuesday said he survived heavy fire for five hours during an attempted coup which he claimed killed or injured many people in the unstable west African country.
Umaro Sissoco Embalo told reporters he faced "sustained fire from heavy arms for five hours" with a military advisor, minister and two bodyguards in the capital Bissau during a plot to "kill the president of the republic and the entire cabinet".
"The attackers could have spoken to me before these bloody events that have seriously injured many and claimed lives," he said.
Coup-prone Guinea-Bissau struggles with a reputation for corruption and drug smuggling and the president alluded to this without naming the putschists.
Appearing unharmed and calm, he added that the failed bid was linked to decisions taken by him "notably to fight drug trafficking and corruption".
"I am fine, thanks be to God," Embalo had said on Twitter earlier. "The situation is under control".
On Tuesday afternoon, heavily-armed men surrounded government buildings, where Embalo and Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam were believed to have been attending a cabinet meeting.
People were seen fleeing the area on the edge of Bissau, near the airport.
Local markets were closed and banks shut their doors, while military vehicles laden with troops drove through the streets.
But the president later told AFP in a brief telephone call: "All is well."
His cabinet said he would address the nation on Tuesday evening from the presidential palace.
According to various accounts, armed men were seen entering the government palace which houses different ministries.
Some witnesses described the gunmen as members of the military, others as civilians.
Sustained gunfire followed for a large part of the afternoon when the complex was surrounded.
An AFP reporter was warned to leave the area by a man carrying a gun who took aim at him.
- 'Huge panic' -
The former Portuguese colony is an impoverished coastal state of around two million people lying south of Senegal.
It has seen four military putsches since gaining independence in 1974, most recently in 2012.
In 2014, the country vowed to return to democracy, but it has enjoyed little stability since and the armed forces wield substantial clout.
A 36-year-old Frenchwoman living in Bissau, Kadeejah Diop, said she rushed to pick up her two children from school and witnessed armed troops entering the government complex.
"They made all the female workers leave. There was huge panic," she told AFP by phone from her home.
Troops set up a security perimeter around the palace and kept people away.
African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat expressed deep concern over the "attempted coup".
An AU statement said he was following "with deep concern the situation in Guinea Bissau, marked by the attempted coup d'etat against the government".
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also issued a statement saying it "condemns this attempted coup" and urged soldiers to "return to their barracks".
The bloc warned that it "holds the military responsible for the well-being" of the president and government members.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the restoration of democratic order in Guinea-Bissau.
"We are seeing a terrible multiplication of coups, and our strong appeal is for soldiers to go back to the barracks and for the constitutional order to be fully in place," he told reporters.
- Election turmoil -
Embalo, a 49-year-old reserve brigadier general and former prime minister, took office in February 2020 after winning an election that followed four years of political in-fighting under the country's semi-presidential system.
He was a candidate for a party called Madem, comprised of rebels from the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) which had led Guinea-Bissau to independence.
His chief opponent, PAIGC candidate Domingos Simoes Pereira, bitterly contested the result but Embalo declared himself president without waiting for the outcome of his petition to the Supreme Court.
Late last year, the armed forces chief said members of the military had been preparing to launch a coup while the president was on a working trip to Brazil.
Troops had been offering bribes to other soldiers "in order to subvert the established constitutional order", armed forces head General Biague Na Ntam said on October 14.
The government spokesman denied his account the following day.
Guinea-Bissau's porous coastline and cultural ties have made it an important stop on the Africa trafficking route. In 2019, nearly two tonnes of cocaine were seized.
Three other countries in West Africa -- Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso -- have experienced military takeovers in less than 18 months.
The region's mounting instability is due to discussed on Thursday at an ECOWAS summit in Accra, Ghana.
© Agence France-Presse