DAKAR West African regional bloc ECOWAS plans to send more than 600 troops to Guinea-Bissau in coming days to protect institutions and political figures after a military coup there, a senior ECOWAS source and another informed official said on Wednesday.
If ECOWAS follows through, the move risks triggering renewed conflict in the impoverished nation since the military junta that seized power on April 12 has warned it would treat any foreign troops dispatched to Guinea-Bissau as occupiers.
A regional security force in Guinea-Bissau could provide the country's politicians cover to form a caretaker government and create a fresh roadmap to democratic elections.
The former Portuguese colony has had several army uprisings since independence in 1974. The latest coup has set back Western efforts to reform the military and combat drug cartels that use the small west African country as a transshipment point for Latin American cocaine bound for Europe.
The ECOWAS source said a 638-strong regional force, which will include troops from regional military heavyweight Nigeria along with Ivory Coast, Senegal and Burkina Faso, would be deployed in Guinea-Bissau in the "next few days".
He said the force would be charged with "protecting state institutions and political figures" in the country, suggesting that ECOWAS would seek to help in the reinstatement of a civilian government.
Officials from ECOWAS, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ivory Coast did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A junta official was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday.
ECOWAS has repeatedly condemned the military overthrow in Guinea-Bissau. An ECOWAS delegation went to the country last week in an ultimately futile bid to reach a deal with the junta's leaders to restore constitutional order.
ECOWAS heads of state were due to meet in Ivory Coast on Thursday to discuss Guinea-Bissau as well as Mali, whose president was ousted by soldiers in March and where rebels have taken control of the vast northern desert.
A source involved in organizing the summit confirmed the heads of state are expected to authorize the deployment of a force to Guinea-Bissau.
RISK OF REKINDLING CONFLICT
"According to the program, which has not yet been finalized, they plan to give their permission," the source said on condition of anonymity. "They are going to issue a document that will allow (the force) to leave. They are ready."
A United Nations official in the capital Bissau said he was not aware of the ECOWAS plan and said he had no information that an intervention force had been requested.
A Western diplomatic source said the deployment risks backfiring by sparking renewing conflict in a country still recovering from a 1998-99 civil war, and an 11-year independence struggle before that.
"They (junta forces) have the homefield advantage and decades of experience. These guys know how to fight," he said, asking not to be named.
The ECOWAS source said the deployment of the regional force would coincide with the withdrawal of a much smaller Angolan contingent that had been in the country as part of an effort to reform Guinea-Bissau's military.
Guinea-Bissau's army has been accused by Western nations of involvement in narcotics trafficking, and before the coup the United Nations had been coordinating efforts to shrink the bloated force and improve discipline within its ranks.
Soldiers took power in Guinea-Bissau by derailing a presidential election and detaining the poll's front-runner, ex-Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, after an overnight attack on his house with heavy weapons.
Gomes Junior, who supported army reform and was outspoken against drugs, was widely expected to win an April 29 run-off before the vote was pre-empted. The junta said Gomes Junior wanted to "annihilate Guinea-Bissau's armed forces."
The army leaders said last week they planned to create a National Transitional Council charged with setting new elections in two years, but the plan was rejected by ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations Security Council.
The World Bank and the African Development Bank said last week they had suspended tens of millions of dollars in development programs in Guinea-Bissau, whose main export is cashew nuts.
(Additional reporting by Kwasi Kpodo in Accra, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, and Diadie Ba in Dakar; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)