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Guinea-Bissau leader assassinated in his palace

SOLDIERS assassinated the president of Guinea-Bissau in his palace yesterday hours after a bomb blast killed his rival, but the military insisted no coup was taking place in the West African nation.

A military statement broadcast on state radio attributed President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira's death to an "isolated" group of unidentified soldiers whom the military said it was now hunting down.

The capital of Bissau was calm and traffic flowed normally yesterday despite the overnight gunfight at the palace that led to the president's death.

The former Portuguese colony has suffered multiple coups and attempted coups since 1980, when Vieira himself first took power in one. The UN said Guinea-Bissau, on the Atlantic coast of Africa, has recently become a key transit point for cocaine smuggled from Latin America to Europe.

Following an emergency Cabinet meeting yesterday, military spokesman Zamora Induta said top military brass told government officials "this was not a coup d'etat."

"We reaffirmed our intention to respect the democratically elected power and the constitution of the republic," Induta said. "The people who killed President Vieira have not been arrested, but we are pursuing them. They are an isolated group. The situation is under control."

The constitution calls for parliament chief Raimundo Pereira to succeed the president in the event of his death.

Vieira had ruled Guinea-Bissau for 23 of the past 29 years. He came to power in the 1980 coup but was forced out 19 years later at the onset of the country's civil war. He later returned from exile in Portugal to run in the country's 2005 election and won the vote.

Retaliatory killing

The military statement dismissed claims that the military killed Vieira in retaliation for the assassination late Sunday of his longtime rival, armed forces chief of staff General Batiste Tagme na Waie, at his headquarters in Bissau. The two men were considered staunch political and ethnic rivals and both had survived recent assassination attempts.

Vieira, from the minority Papel ethnic group, once blamed majority ethnic Balanta officers for attempting a coup against him, condemning several to death.

The bomb that killed Waie had been hidden underneath the staircase leading to his office. Hours later, volleys of automatic gunfire rang out for at least two hours before dawn in Bissau and residents said soldiers had converged on Vieira's palace.

The Portuguese news agency LUSA reported that troops attacked the palace with rockets and rifles.


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