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Military unrest mars hopes for Guinea-Bissau election

April 12, 2012 |  5:21 pm

In Guinea-Bissau, soldiers reportedly sealed off the parts of the capital on Thursday and ringed the home of the prime minister, lobbing grenades. The unrest comes weeks before an election once seen as a chance for one of the most troubled states in West Africa to overcome its tumultuous past.

“I am prevented from leaving,” an unnamed diplomat told the Associated Press on Thursday from his office in Bissau. “The downtown area has been sealed off by the military … I can also tell you that all Guinea-Bissau radio has been taken off the air since 8 p.m. local time and the whereabouts of the prime minister and interim president are unknown.”

The impoverished country has a history pocked with military coups and revolts since it won its independence from Portugal. Its first president was overthrown by his army chief, who in turn was ousted after he dismissed his own army chief, starting a civil war. Two more coups followed.

Guinea-Bissau has been readying for a runoff election between the prime minister and a former president later this month, trying to replace its late leader Malam Bacai Sanha.

The election has been viewed as a test of unity and stability for the country. Late last month, the United Nations Security Council called on political leaders "to exercise restraint and to refrain from any action that could hamper the electoral process," saying that smooth elections would allow the country to move on to tackling drug trafficking and other problems. But the election has been plagued with accusations and unrest.

Former president and candidate Kumba Yala had threatened to boycott the runoff after Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. took nearly half the vote. Yala and other opposition candidates claimed the first round of voting was marred by fraud, even though election observers say the polls were clean.

The military surrounded Gomes Jr.'s home on Thursday and began attacking it with grenades, according to a military official who spoke with the Associated Press. The prime minister's relationship with the military had been rocky since a military mutiny ousted one of his allies two years ago, Reuters reported.

Rumors were already spreading last month that the military was dismayed and might stage a coup. Tensions only rose after a former military intelligence chief was shot to death the same day that polls closed.

"There is the impression that the army is not happy," resident Fadimata Alainchair told the Guardian last month after the first vote. "They are seen as one of the problems here and no one knows what is going to happen -- things may just blow up in the middle of the night."

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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