BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau – Guinea-Bissau's latest coup attempt appears to have been fomented in Portugal and led by a soldier who sought exile in the European country after allegedly carrying out the 2009 assassination of Guinea-Bissau's former president, a government spokesman said on Monday.
The main suspect in Sunday's foiled coup is Pansau Ntchama, a commando who is the ex-bodyguard of Guinea-Bissau's former army chief of staff, said government spokesman Fernando Vaz.
"He is a man with political ambitions living in Portugal," Vaz said of Ntchama. "He appeared here in order to carry out this attempted coup...He flew to Gambia, and then he went to Angola to pick up arms. ... He has fled into the bush, but we are confident that we will catch him."
The coup attempt began at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning when gunmen led by Ntchama opened fire on a military base near the international airport in the capital, Bissau. The army fought back and the coup plotters fled, said Vaz, but at least six soldiers were killed.
A taxi owner who was near the scene of the attack said that the shooting woke him up.
"We heard violent shooting coming from the military camp in Basere, located next to the airport," said Ahmadou Bah. "We later learned that it was some renegade soldiers who had attacked the camp and there were at least six killed in their ranks," he said.
Calm has returned to Bissau, Bah said, "but the population is still in fear, worried that there could be further trouble."
At least four of the six killed were assailants working with Ntchama. They were from the Djola ethnic group, which is the dominant ethnic group both in Gambia and in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, two countries that neighbor Guinea-Bissau.
Troubled Guinea-Bissau has had so many coups and countercoups that no elected leader has been able to complete his term in the 38 years since Guinea-Bissau won its independence from Portugal. The most recent coup occurred in April, just weeks before the presidential runoff election.
Portugal denounced the coup and called for calm in a statement on Sunday, but the government did not respond to accusations that the coup plotters were able to plan their attack from Portuguese soil.
"The Portuguese government expresses its concern about the situation in Guinea-Bissau after another instance of military action," said the statement. "There is no military solution for the problems Guinea-Bissau faces."
Vaz called the coup attempt "inadmissible," and said that "it's only purpose is to complicate our transition (to democracy) and throw into doubt the stability of our nation."
Ntchama has also been implicated in the death of Guinea-Bissau's former President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, Vaz said.
The tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau, roughly three times the size of the state of Connecticut, has also become one of the main transit points for Europe-bound cocaine, shipped in from Latin America. Factions within the army are known to be involved in the trafficking and analysts believe that much of the country's recent turmoil is the result of turf wars over the control of cocaine trafficking.
Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press reporters Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal and Mamadou Diallo in Ziguinchor, Senegal also contributed to this report.