Guinea-Bissau army says in control after gunfire, clashes

Guinea-Bissau army says in control after gunfire, clashes

Gunfire was heard in the capital of Guinea-Bissau overnight where the army says it has the situation under control following clashes. (Photo: AFP)
Gunfire was heard in the capital of Guinea-Bissau overnight where the army says it has the situation under control following clashes. (Photo: AFP)

BISSAU - Guinea-Bissau's army said Friday it was in control after a gun battle in the capital between units of the security forces which left two dead, underscoring political divisions in the small West African nation with a history of instability.

Gunfire was heard through part of the night and early on Friday in Bissau, in clashes between members of the national guard and special forces guarding the president, an AFP reporter heard.

Two people died in the fighting, a military official said speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. It was not clear which side the victims were from.

Calm returned by mid-morning, with the army announcing the capture or surrender of the commander of the national guard.

Daily activity remained subdued in central Bissau, where military pick-ups patrolled.

Security has been stepped up near the presidency, military general staff and judicial police.

A photo sent by the army to media purportedly showed Colonel Victor Tchongo being held by the military in a pick-up truck in apparently bloody clothing.

"Colonel Tchongo is in our hands. The situation is completely under control," military chief of staff spokesman Captain Jorgito Biague told AFP.

A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tchongo had surrendered.

The army chief of staff issued a statement calling for the population to stay calm.

UN chief Antonio Guterres' spokesman Stephane Dujarric echoed the call for calm and encouraged the security forces and the army "to continue refraining from interference in national politics".

Members of the national guard burst into police buildings late on Thursday to free two members of the government who were being questioned, according to military and intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

They took the two officials -- Economy and Finance Minister Souleiman Seidi and Secretary of State for the Treasury Antonio Monteiro -- to an unknown location on Thursday night, before seeking refuge in the barracks in the southern Santa Luzia district, the sources said.

The two government members were found safe, the military official said on Friday. They are again in detention.

- Coalitions at work ? -

"My children and I were up all night because of the shooting. The children are afraid and are clinging to me every time the weapons go off," a teacher said by telephone, declining to be identified for safety reasons.

Guinea-Bissau has been politically unstable since independence from Portugal in 1974, going through four coups and several attempted coups.

An attempt to overthrow President Umaro Sissoco Embalo took place in February 2022.

The events overnight appear to reflect a "fractionalised state" and old rivalries between the current president and the historic ruling party, the PAIGC, Vincent Foucher from the France-based National Centre for Scientific Research told AFP.

The two government members were questioned by judicial police on instructions from the prosecutor general, appointed by the president.

The national guard answers to the interior ministry, which is dominated by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), as are other ministries following the victory of the PAIGC-led coalition in June legislative elections.

"If the national guard goes (to the judicial police), it's because it is under the authority of the Interior; if the presidential guard intervenes, it's because it is under that of the president," Foucher said.

"This is how things work in Guinea-Bissau."

The two members of the government had been summoned by the judiciary early on Thursday and taken into custody.

Police questioned them for several hours about a withdrawal of $10 million from state coffers, according to the military and intelligence sources.

Seidi had been questioned during a National Assembly session on Monday and said the withdrawal was legal and intended to support the national private sector.

Embalo, elected in December 2019, is currently in Dubai attending the United Nations Climate Conference, COP28.

Shortly after coups in Niger and Gabon, Embalo in September beefed up his own security, appointing two new officials in positions that had not been filled for several decades.

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