São Tomé Coup Leader Promises Elections

With a host of influential foreign leaders lined up against him, the leader of a military coup in this tiny West African nation gave assurances Thursday that he has no plans to rule the oil-rich country.

International pressure mounted on Maj. Fernando Pereira to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis with the elected officials he ousted in a coup on Wednesday.

Pereira, a 46-year-old artillery officer, said he intended to allow elections.

"We achieved our objective by taking over," he told Portuguese state radio Radiodifusao Portuguesa. "Now we have to set up a provisional government and ... create the conditions for free elections. We don't want power," he said.

Diplomats from the United States and Portugal (search), the country's former colonial ruler, sought to mediate between the rebellious troops and the deposed government.

Sao Tome (search) lies in the Gulf of Gabon (search), in West Africa, a region of growing importance to the United States and other nations as a source for oil.

The island nation, with a population of about 140,000, has sought help from the United States in recent years for offshore oil exploration.

President Fradique de Menezes was in Nigeria with President Olusegun Obasanjo when the coup occurred. The rebellious troops detained members of the government, who were still being held at an army barracks Thursday.

Nigeria -- which has a deal to share huge offshore oil reserves with Sao Tome -- was due to send an envoy Thursday to meet with the rebellious troops but by nightfall the envoy had not arrived and the airport was closed.

Remi Oyo, spokeswoman to Obasanjo, declined to comment on whether a Nigerian delegation would be heading to Sao Tome, saying only that "something is being worked out."

South African President Thabo Mbeki said diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis must be maintained.

"I'm hoping that we can, all of us, apply enough pressure on these soldiers to make sure that we reverse this and re-establish the democratically elected government of Sao Tome," Mbeki said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan strongly condemned the coup while Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, who currently heads the 53-nation African Union, appealed for a peaceful solution.

Chissano was expected to hold talks Thursday in Abuja, Nigeria, with Menezes and Obasanjo about the possibility of sending a team of diplomats to Sao Tome.

Troops could be seen deploying artillery around the closed airport, apparently in fear of military intervention from abroad.

Sao Tome is one of Africa's smallest and poorest countries, with average income of about $24 per month, according to the World Bank.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund three years ago granted Sao Tome $200 million in debt relief.

Calisto Madavo, the World Bank vice president for Africa, indicated Thursday that the aid would be halted unless the international community recognizes the new government.

Sao Tome's last coup attempt, in 1995, collapsed when the United States and the European Union halted aid programs.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Antonio Martins da Cruz said the U.S. Ambassador to Gabon, Kenneth Moorefield, who was visiting Sao Tome when the coup occurred, and Portugal's Ambassador Mario de Jesus Santos were in contact with both sides.

"The Portuguese and American ambassadors have been taking discreet action...to try and facilitate dialogue," Martins da Cruz said.

After a dusk-to-dawn curfew the streets of Sao Tome, the capital, were calm Thursday.

Public offices and banks remained closed but some gas stations reopened under military guard and shops were mostly open for business. The airport was still closed.

The public appeared divided over the coup.

"We needed radical action to get this country back on its feet. This was the only way," said a 36-year-old government employee who said he was frustrated by low living standards.

But a 46-year-old unemployed man predicted the coup would bring trouble and would ultimately fail. "A government set up like this would get lots of international sanctions placed on it. The junta has to negotiate a way out of this," he said.

Neither men would give their name for fear of reprisals.