March 12, 2009 / 8:08 PM / 10 years ago

AU chief Gaddafi visits crisis-torn Guinea-Bissau

* Gaddafi says 60-day poll timetable may need extending

* AU chairman meets military and political leaders

By Alberto Dabo

BISSAU, March 12 (Reuters) - African Union chief Muammar Gaddafi of Libya flew to crisis-hit Guinea-Bissau on Thursday and said polls to elect a successor to the assassinated president may need to be delayed.

Soldiers killed President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira on March 2, in a revenge attack hours after an explosion killed his bitter rival General Batista Tagme Na Wai, the armed forces chief of the tiny, unstable West African country.

National Assembly Speaker Raimundo Pereira was sworn in last week to head an interim administration charged under the constitution with organising presidential elections within 60 days.

That may prove difficult for the former Portuguese colony which, although it organised what were generally regarded as fair parliamentary elections last year, has suffered decades of civil conflict and military coups and now risks becoming a "narco-state" in the hands of Latin American cocaine smugglers.

"Perhaps the 60-day timescale specified under the constitution will not be sufficient to organise presidential elections," Gaddafi said at the international airport in the capital Bissau at the end of a two-hour visit.

Gaddafi said the African Union and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, which groups more than half the AU members, would send observers to the election and launch their own inquiries into the twin killings that stunned Guinea-Bissau.

The death of the two veterans of the guerrilla war of independence against Portugal has ended a rivalry that was behind repeated bouts of violence, including gun attacks on both men in the past few months.

Their deaths have also left a power vacuum which analysts fear could lead to further instability and enable Latin American cocaine smuggling cartels, already active in Bissau, to extend their influence.

Speaking at Vieira’s funeral on Tuesday, Pereira said the country of just 1.6 million people was "going through the most difficult time in its history" — a bleak comment on a virtually dysfunctional state that has limped from military coup to mutiny over the years, including a brief civil war in the 1990s.

Pereira’s swearing in has allayed fears of a military coup, but analysts say the armed forces, dominated by Na Wai’s Balante, the country’s biggest ethnic group, still hold huge sway over the political establishment.

As well as Pereira and Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, Gaddafi met Jose Zamora Induta, the naval frigate captain who heads a military commission formed soon after last week’s killings to "manage the crisis".

It is unclear what, if any, political role the commission has beyond running the armed forces after Na Wai’s death. (Writing by Alistair Thomson, editing by Tim Pearce)

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