President says discontent in Sao Tome army, plays down fears of uprising

SAO TOME Tue Feb 11, 2014 1:54pm EST

SAO TOME Feb 11 (Reuters) - Sao Tome and Principe's president warned of discontent in the island nation's military after striking soldiers boycotted his presidential guard in protest at rising prices, but played down fears of a new uprising.

The presidential honour guard failed to report for duty at the airport as President Manuel Pinto da Costa left on a state visit to Congo Republic late on Monday.

About 300 junior and non-commissioned officers began their strike on Thursday, raising concerns that military officers might again seek to take power in the African country where political wrangling has led to regular changes of government and seen two failed military coups in 1995 and 2003.

The former Portuguese colony is home to 180,000 people.

"There is discontent in the barracks," Pinto da Costa said, saying the strike was a reflection of economic difficulties.

"We are currently experiencing so many difficulties and many people are not happy," he said.

Since holding its first multi-party elections in 1991, Sao Tome and Principe has avoided the political violence that has plagued neighbours on the Central African mainland.

In a letter to Prime Minister Gabriel Costa in December, soldiers demanded higher wages and better housing and health care.

The rising prices of staple foods, electricity, water and education are placing increasing strain on the population. Two months ago, President Pinto da Costa called for a national dialogue between the government and civil society in an effort to ensure political stability.

A neighbour to major oil producers Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome's potential petroleum wealth has piqued the interest of international companies. However, the sector has yet to take off and development assistance accounts for 85 percent of the nation's budget, according to the World Bank. (Reporting by Ricardo Neto; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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