April 30, 2012 / 2:42 PM / 6 years ago

West Africa bloc hits Bissau with sanctions, threatens force

BANJUL (Reuters) - West African regional bloc ECOWAS slapped sanctions on Guinea-Bissau’s military rulers on Monday and threatened to use force to dislodge them, after talks to restore constitutional order in the coup-stricken nation broke down.

Guinea-Bissau has been run by soldiers since an April 12 coup that derailed presidential elections and set back Western efforts to combat drug cartels using the country as a transit hub for cocaine bound for Europe.

“These are targeted sanctions against junta leaders and diplomatic, economic and financial sanctions against the country,” an ECOWAS official said. “They went into effect at midnight, last night.”

An ECOWAS communique seen by Reuters said heads of state from the regional grouping would meet on May 3 to consider “all other necessary measures, including the use of force” against the junta if it continues to cling to power.

Details of the sanctions were not immediately available, but are likely to add pressure on the junta, which has already delayed the payment of public wages.

The national labor union said on Monday that public workers would strike “until a legitimate government is formed”.

The ECOWAS decision follows a meeting with a delegation from the junta in the capital of neighboring Gambia on Sunday.

Representatives of the junta rejected an ECOWAS demand that it hand power to civilians through new elections within a year, and that interim President Raimundo Pereira, arrested in the coup, be reinstated during the transition.

Pereira was released by soldiers on Friday along with former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, the front-runner in the presidential polls before they were pre-empted. Both left the country for Ivory Coast.

FACE THE CONSEQUENCES

ECOWAS also said it believed Army Chief of Staff General Antonio Indjai was the leader of the shadowy self-styled Military Command that seized power in the coup, the latest since the country gained independence from Portugal in 1974. The junta said Indjai had been deposed during the coup.

“The junta delegation was repeatedly calling Indjai during the talks to get guidance on what to do,” said the ECOWAS official, who attended the talks but asked not to be named. “It was very frustrating, but (it) made clear who was in charge.”

The communique named Indjai as “the head of the junta” and said he “was not willing to negotiate and clearly prefers to face the consequences.”

Indjai was opposed to Gomes Junior’s presidency because the former premier supported international efforts to reform the military, which western governments believe is complicit in narcotics trafficking.

ECOWAS announced last week it would send a force of more than 600 troops to Guinea-Bissau to protect state institutions and people there, and monitor the country’s transition back to civilian rule.

A junta spokesman said last week it would accept the force, which it said would replace a much-smaller contingent of Angolan soldiers due to leave the country. A spokesman was not immediately available on Monday.

ECOWAS heads of state are due to meet in Dakar this week to discuss the timing of the deployment of the troops, which will include soldiers from regional military heavyweight Nigeria, as well as to consider the use of force against the junta.

A western diplomat said open conflict with Guinea-Bissau’s military, thought to number more than 5,000, would be bloody.

ECOWAS is also struggling to address the aftermath of a coup in Mali, and has said it plans to send more than 3,000 troops to the country to oversee its transition.

Writing and additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Additional reporting by Alberto Dabo in Bissau; Editing by Jon Boyle and Maria Golovnina

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