February 17, 2009 / 1:23 PM / 11 years ago

Seaborne gunmen attack Equatorial Guinea capital

MALABO (Reuters) - Gunmen in motor boats attacked the presidential palace in oil-producing Equatorial Guinea’s island capital on Tuesday before being repelled by the armed forces, the government said.

Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Havana's Revolution Square, February 16, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

The government said the attackers came from nearby Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where seaborne raiding parties have grown increasingly bold in the past two years, launching raids against banks and other targets in neighbouring countries.

Residents in Malabo, the island hub of the fast-growing offshore oil industry in sub-Saharan Africa’s third biggest crude producer, were woken by gunfire and said government forces used a helicopter gunship to repulse the pre-dawn attack.

“Our country was once again the victim of an attack by the rebels of the Delta on the city of Malabo,” the government said in a statement.

“A contingent of rebel terrorists from the Delta arrived in numerous boats and tried to invade the capital, with the aim of taking and destroying the presidential palace,” it said.

At least one attacker was shot dead and another group drowned when their boat was sunk by the Navy, it added.

The former Spanish colony has suffered decades of instability and in 2004 dozens of foreign mercenaries, mostly South Africans, were caught trying to overthrow the president.

Government aircraft, including at least one helicopter gunship, took to the air over the city during the engagement, said a Western resident who declined to be identified.

“The situation has returned to something like calm. There was obviously some attack or attempted attack made in the vicinity of the presidential compound,” he said.

“It involved automatic weapons fire. There was active engagement for at least an hour. There are consistent reports that some sort of launch or fast boats were used. At least one put people ashore before the shooting started,” he said.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was in Bata, in the part of Equatorial Guinea on mainland Africa, the Spanish state news agency EFE and a source in Malabo said.

“We were woken up to gunfire at about 4 a.m. It lasted for about three hours. It was coming from the presidency. Now it is calm,” one resident, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

“We don’t know what is happening. We are waiting for information. For now the city is blocked off. We can’t get in.”

Although the government said the gunmen had tried to seize the presidential palace, Spain’s Foreign Ministry said the attack appeared to be criminal in nature, rather than an attempted coup d’etat.

Obiang’s government denounced the attack in its statement as nothing more than the “usual manoeuvres of our eternal enemies” and called on the population to be patriotic and collaborate with the armed forces to denounce those who might be suspicious.

Previous attacks by armed groups operating in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea around Nigeria’s Niger Delta, including a seaborne raid on banks in Bata in December 2007, have triggered waves of harassment of foreigners in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea, with a population of barely 600,000 people, has attracted large numbers of immigrants from nearby countries in the last decade as its oil industry has mushroomed.

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