BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau – Soldiers on Saturday arrested protesters demanding the release of Guinea-Bissau's leading candidate in elections halted by mutinous troops, who claimed he was trying to assassinate top military leaders of this coup-prone West African nation.
Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. was unpopular with soldiers because of his efforts to reform the military by downsizing the bloated army, strengthening the police and fighting the cocaine-trafficking business in which some senior officers and politicians are believed embroiled.
The United Nations calls Guinea-Bissau a "narco-state" with uninhabited islands used as transit points by Latin American cartels that fly in drugs that are then transshipped to Europe.
Amid international condemnation of the military's latest show of power, small protests in favor of Gomes erupted in downtown Bissau on Saturday as soldiers met with politicians to discuss a return to civilian rule. The soldiers quickly subdued them by erecting roadblocks and arresting a few, according to Peter Thompson, head of a British election observer mission in Bissau.
Businesses slowly reopened Saturday, but closed to observe a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The military plan would exclude Gomes from any civilian government and would reserve for soldiers the portfolios for defense and interior security — considered key to controlling the drug trade.
Gomes' party, the biggest in a small country of 1.6 million people, condemned the coup Saturday and said it would not partipicate in the military-proposed transitional government. "The PAIGC rejects any anti-constitutional or anti-democratic proposals to resolve this crisis," it said in a statement.
Gomes was the democratically elected leader until he resigned to run in presidential elections. He was the front-runner in a contentious presidential runoff scheduled April 29 following balloting that many consider fraudulent, though observers say Gomes would have won without any cheating.
On Thursday, unidentified soldiers calling themselves "the military commando" attacked Gomes' home with rocket-propelled grenades and detained him, ensuring he joins the ranks of all the other leaders who never have finished a term of office in the country's nearly 40 years of independence. Other government leaders are in hiding.
The mutineers claim they have a secret document that Gomes signed with Angola's president authorizing Angolan troops — in Bissau to carry out reforms of the military — to "annihilate" Guinea-Bissau's top soldiers.
Last week, military spokesman Dabana Na Walna called a news conference to charge that the Angolans had imported heavy weapons including combat vehicles, tanks, mortars and anti-aircraft missiles. He also questioned the government's figure of some 200 Angolan troops in Guinea-Bissau, indicating the military believe there are many more.
Na Walna said the soldiers wanted the heavy weapons sent back to Angola or handed over to Guinea-Bissau's army.
On Saturday, state radio reported that the Angolan troops have asked for the protection of Guinea-Bissau's army to help repatriate the weapons.
The government of Angola, a former Portuguese colony like Guinea-Bissau, has not responded to the charges about the weapons, nor to the mutineers' latest claims of an assassination plot.
Portugal's defense minister, Jose Aguiar Branco, said Saturday that his country would not intervene military, but that his forces are prepared to evacuate Portuguese citizens and those of any other country requesting help.
Also Saturday, East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta offered to mediate.
"The situation in Guinea-Bissau, which I have followed over the years, is extraordinarily complex, dangerous, because it can degrade into more violence, and the country is not in a position to afford that new setback in the peace process and its democratization," he told Portuguese news agency Lusa.
The Economic Community of West African States, which has condemned the soldiers, on Friday said it will send a military contingent to provide security in Guinea-Bissau. The bloc also agreed to send a civilian-military delegation to mediate led by President Alpha Conde of Guinea.
ECOWAS was first to condemn the soldiers and was quickly joined by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.
On Saturday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States "(urges) all parties to put down their weapons, release government leaders immediately, and restore the legitimate civilian leadership."
"We strongly condemn the attempt by certain elements of the military to forcibly seize power and undermine the legitimate civilian leadership of Guinea-Bissau," he said. "We regret that they have chosen to disrupt the democratic process, which already was challenged by the opposition's call to boycott the second round of elections."
Associated Press writer Lamine Djata contributed to this report from Bissau.