BISSAU Soldiers in Guinea-Bissau released two leading politicians they had arrested in an April 12 coup and said on Friday they would accept the planned deployment to the country of over 600 soldiers from West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
Carlos Gomes Junior, the ex-premier and presidential election front-runner, and interim President Raimundo Pereira were freed on Friday afternoon after a visit by ECOWAS military chiefs and later flew to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
The pair were released a day after ECOWAS announced the deployment of a force in Guinea-Bissau to secure the return to civilian rule, and threatened targeted sanctions against soldiers who blocked the process.
The coup took place halfway through elections in the former Portuguese colony, which has endured decades of instability since independence in 1974 and become a transit hub for Latin American cocaine mostly headed for Europe.
Lieutenant-Colonel Daha Bana na Walna, a spokesman for the Military Command that seized power in the coup, confirmed the release of Gomes Junior and Pereira.
"The Military Command accepts the deployment of the 600 men from ECOWAS," he added, saying they would replace a contingent of Angolan soldiers due to leave the country.
The self-styled Military Command said it seized power to head off an alleged pact between Angola, which had been providing military trainers in the country, and Gomes Junior to annihilate Guinea-Bissau's armed forces.
Luanda announced earlier this month it was ending the mission amid reports of tension with parts of the military.
A Reuters witness at Abidjan airport said Gomes Junior and Pereira arrived on an Ivorian government jet accompanied by Ivory Coast's army chief of staff, General Soumaila Bakayoko.
Adama Bictogo, Ivory Coast's minister for African integration, said the release of the politicians pointed to the military being ready to prepare the ground for a return to civilian rule.
"Freeing these individuals is a good sign," he told Reuters.
There is not yet any firm time frame for the ECOWAS deployment, but heads of state have called for it to take place immediately.
The regional force will have to end a decades-long history of meddling by the armed forces in politics that stretches back to the independence war but has intensified with the flow of cocaine through the region.
ECOWAS also announced on Thursday that it planned to send a force to Mali, where soldiers seized power in a March 22 coup and retain influence in the running of the state despite officially handing powers back to civilians.
But the junta there said on Friday it would resist any deployment of West African soldiers in the country and treat foreign forces sent there under a regional plan as "the enemy.
(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo and Peter Cooney)