Second Guinea-Bissau minister steps down over Syrian refugee scandal

BISSAU Wed Dec 18, 2013 11:34am EST

BISSAU (Reuters) - Guinea-Bissau's Interior Minister Antonio Suka Ntchama became the second minister to step down in the tiny West African country amid an investigation into how 74 Syrians boarded a flight to Portugal with fake passports.

"I am going to resign until there is light cast on these 74 Syrians," the minister told a news conference late on Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Fernando Delfim da Silva stepped down last Friday after the incident earlier this month stoked tensions with former colonial power Portugal.

Portugal's Foreign Ministry said a "serious breach of security" at Bissau airport had allowed the asylum seekers to board the plane with "proven false documents".

Portuguese carrier TAP has canceled its three weekly flights to Guinea-Bissau until there is a complete re-evaluation of security conditions.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war, many taking refuge in neighboring Turkey. The United Nations expects another 2 million Syrians to become refugees in 2014.

Portuguese daily Diario de Noticias said authorities in Bissau had forced the crew of the plane to take the 74 passengers despite their passports being fake.

Officials in Portugal said last week that Lisbon was considering asylum requests from the Syrians. State-run news agency Lusa said the group was made up of 21 children, 15 women and 38 men.

Authorities in Guinea-Bissau detained a businessman, Calidu Balde, on Monday in connection with the case.

Guinea-Bissau has gained notoriety in recent years as a drug trafficking route from Latin America to Europe. It is due to hold elections next year to seal a return to democracy after the military seized power in a 2012 coup before handing over to a civilian transitional government.

(Reporting by Alberto Dabo; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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