BISSAU (Reuters) - Angola began withdrawing its troops and military equipment from Guinea-Bissau on Wednesday, officials said, ending a year-long mission in the West African country aimed at reforming the army but which instead helped trigger a coup.
An Angolan ship, the Rio Mbridge, began loading up men and equipment at the port of Bissau, and airplanes were deployed to pick up remaining troops who had been headquartered in a hotel in the seaside capital.
“The withdrawal is ongoing and unfolding normally,” said Fernando Vaz, a spokesman for Guinea-Bissau’s transitional government, in place since mid-May after the ruling military junta ceded power back to civilians after an April coup.
An Angolan military officer confirmed the withdrawal.
The removal of the roughly 270-strong force could ease tensions in the country after Bissau soldiers seized power on April 12 and accused Angola of having had a secret pact with the ousted government to destroy its military.
The Angolan mission had been in Guinea-Bissau since early 2011 and was charged with helping reform the country’s military after a string of coups and army uprisings since independence from Portugal in 1974.
Angola had announced it would withdraw its force days before the April coup that derailed an election process and forced the poll’s front-runner, former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, and some of his allies to flee the country.
The junta said Gomes Junior, a vocal supporter of efforts to reform the military and combat cartels using the tiny country as a cocaine transhipment point, had a deal with Luanda to “annihilate Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces”.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS mediated a deal with Guinea-Bissau’s junta that paved the way for a civilian transitional government to take back power in mid-May and for a 600-strong ECOWAS force to replace the Angolan mission.
The CPLP grouping of Portuguese-speaking countries, the United Nations, and the European Union have expressed frustration over the ECOWAS deal, saying it does not adhere to a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for military coups.
The EU said last week it does not recognize the Guinea-Bissau transitional government, headed by parliament speaker and interim president Manuel Sherifo Nhamadjo, in part because it appears to still be taking orders from the army.
Western diplomatic sources said the ECOWAS deal rewarded the coup leaders with the removal of would-be president Gomes Junior, and added the row may also reflect a rivalry between Angola and Nigeria for influence in the tiny country, which has rich bauxite deposits and possible offshore oil.
Guinea-Bissau is a hub for narcotics trafficking between South America and Europe, and the United States has named two of its top military officials ‘drugs kingpins’.
Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Michael Roddy