By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU (Reuters) - Frightened residents fled the capital of Guinea-Bissau on Monday and some stockpiled supplies after military chiefs shut the country's air and sea space following their coup four days ago.
As uncertainty in the small impoverished West African state grew, former colonial power Portugal denounced what it called an "absolutely illegitimate military coup" and said it had dispatched a military force in case it became necessary to evacuate its citizens.
The prospect of Portuguese planes and warships appearing off the coast prompted Guinea-Bissau's military chiefs to shut the country's air and sea space to all unauthorized traffic. "Non-observance of this measure will imply a military response," a communiqué announcing the move said.
Ordinary people appeared to be bracing themselves for the worst as it became clear that last week's coup - in which soldiers seized the country's civilian leaders and cut short a presidential election - had created an unpredictable power vacuum.
With Guinea-Bissau's army leaders appealing for calm, banks and government offices shut down in the dilapidated coastal capital Bissau and travelers - loaded with luggage and children - packed the bus station seeking transport to what they believed would be safer locations in the interior.
"I'm worried there's going to be a war. So I'm going to my village, at Sao Domingos, I'm leaving with my five children," Djenabou Bari, a housewife in her 40s, told Reuters.
Foreign governments and organizations from around the world have roundly condemned the latest putsch by the country's notoriously unruly military, which has a history of revolts and uprisings. It has more recently been accused of involvement in drug-smuggling.
A high-level delegation from the West African regional grouping ECOWAS was due to fly into Bissau to tell military leaders their actions were "unacceptable". Military sources said the ECOWAS delegation would be authorized to enter the country.
Since soldiers arrested interim President Raimundo Pereira and former prime minister and presidential front-runner Carlos Gomes Junior in an overnight putsch on Thursday, Guinea-Bissau's military chiefs have been struggling to put a credible administration in place to run the country.
Gomes Junior was unpopular with military chiefs because he backed an initiative to downsize the bloated Guinea-Bissau army.
SECOND COUP TO ROIL THE REGION
On Sunday, the military said it had formed a "national transition council" with some of the country's political parties, though the main PAIGC party refused to participate in what it called the army's "unconstitutional" initiatives.
The military has asked the political parties to organize a transition to fresh elections.
In a sign of protest, workers stayed away from government offices on Monday. "The government doesn't exist and in such a situation we have no bosses," Estevao Gomes, secretary-general of the main UNTG union said.
It was the second coup in West Africa in a month following a military takeover by military officers in Mali on March 22 that dealt a setback to efforts to consolidate democracy in a region still rent by ethnic and religious faultlines. Mali's coup leaders have now handed back power to a civilian president.
It remains unclear whether the armed forces in Guinea-Bissau - who have studiously avoided presenting individual leadership "faces" in public - could effectively run a country whose main export is cashew nuts and where most citizens live on less than $2 a day.
"What will they be running? They're holding a whole country hostage," one Bissau-based diplomat said.
"It's them against the world," another diplomat said.
At the weekend, the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries (CPLP), which counts Guinea-Bissau among its members, backed the idea of a U.N.-mandated intervention force for Guinea-Bissau to be formed with the cooperation of the African Union and the European Union.
(Additional reporting by Axel Bugge in Lisbon; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Andrew Osborn)