By LAMINE DJATA, Associated Press
BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau (AP) — The African Union on Tuesday suspended Guinea-Bissau after a coup and arrests of top officials, and said they may impose sanctions on coup leaders and supporters in the tiny West African nation.
Ramtane Lamamra, the head of the AU's peace and security council, announced the automatic suspension Tuesday at AU headquarters in Ethiopia's capital. Lamamra said the AU could apply more sanctions if coup leaders don't take measures to return the country to constitutional rule.
Soldiers overthrew the government Thursday night.
The AU said in a statement Tuesday that the sanctions could affect those responsible for the coup and their supporters, and could include travel bans, asset freezes and more.
The AU said "the recurrence of illegal and unacceptable interference of the leadership of the Bissau-Guinean army in the political life of the country contributes to the persistence of instability and the culture of impunity, hampers efforts towards the establishment of the rule of law, the promotion of development and the entrenchment of a democratic culture." It also said the country's instability makes "it difficult to fight against the scourge of drug trafficking."
Also Tuesday, ECOWAS Commission President Desire Kadre Ouedraogo said ECOWAS is "ready to send troops" to Guinea-Bissau to help reform the military and security sectors.
Ouedraogo did not give a timeline or state the number of troops they were considering sending.
He said ECOWAS had "zero tolerance" for power apprehended by non-constitutional means.
He also said ECOWAS is holding the military responsible for the security of all detainees and demands their immediate release.
Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., who was the front-runner in this month's presidential runoff vote set for April 29, remains in military custody as does interim President Raimundo Pereira, who took power after Guinea-Bissau's president died in January.
The special election was being held after the country's elected president died from an illness at a Paris hospital in January. However, Yala — the second-place finisher — was planning to boycott because of irregularities in the first round of balloting.
Guinea-Bissau has weathered successive coups, attempted coups and a civil war since winning independence from Portugal in 1974.
The country has been further destabilized by a booming drug trade. Cocaine is smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean from South America in boats and planes which dock on Guinea-Bissau's archipelago of virgin islands. The drugs are carried north to Europe.
The unrest in Guinea-Bissau takes place just weeks after mutinous soldiers overthrew the democratically elected president of Mali, who was about to retire after an April election. The country's junta leader handed over power to an interim civilian president last week.
Guinea-Bissau's upheaval presents another dilemma for the regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which is already considering military force to oust rebels who declared independence in northern Mali.
Associated Press writers Kirubel Tadesse in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Laura Burke in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed to this report.