By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU (Reuters) - Guinea-Bissau's interim government accused Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries of being behind an assault on an air force base, saying it was part of a strategy to return to power the West African nation's exiled former prime minister.
The military of the tiny coup-prone former Portuguese colony repelled the attack near the capital Bissau early on Sunday during a two-hour gunbattle that killed six people.
"The attack ... is part of the strategy to bring (ex-prime minister) Carlos Gomes Junior back to Guinea-Bissau, even at the cost of human lives," government spokesman Fernando Vaz said in a statement read on state radio on Sunday night.
"The tone of the speeches given by Portugal, the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries (CPLP) and Carlos Gomes Junior was the precursor to the attack," he said.
Guinea-Bissau, a transit hub for Latin American cocaine smuggled to Europe, is in the throes of a ragged recovery after the army overthrew the government in April just weeks before a second round presidential vote Gomes Junior was favored to win.
The junta said Gomes Junior had a secret pact with Angola, which had soldiers deployed in Bissau at the time, to eliminate the military's leadership.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS brokered a deal that allowed a handover of power to a civilian interim government charged with setting up new elections.
But interim president Manuel Sherifo Nhamadjo lacks the full support of the United Nations, the European Union and the CPLP, however, who say his government remains under army influence.
Portugal's foreign ministry said on Monday it would not react to the accusations it was involved in Sunday's events. It said earlier that it viewed the situation in the country "with concern after another case of military movements.
"There is no military solution to problems faced by Guinea Bissau. Only via a political process will it be possible to overcome the current crisis situation in this friendly country," the statement read.
The governments of other members of the CPLP bloc, which includes Brazil, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe and East Timor, had no immediate comment.
ATTACKED FROM OUTSIDE
The country's interim prime minister said on Monday that four of the six gunmen killed were from the Djolla ethnic group, common in neighboring Senegal's southern Casamance region. An unknown number of attackers were taken prisoner while others remain at large.
"This attack did not come from inside the country and not from the security and defense forces either. The attack...came from outside," Rui Duarte de Barros said during a meeting with diplomats.
Duarte de Barros said the attempted counter-coup was led by Captain Pansao Ntchama, a bodyguard to the former head of the army under Gomes Junior who had been living in exile in Portugal.
He said Ntchama had used a vehicle belonging to Thomas Barboza, a former member of Gomes Junior's government, to carry out the attack. He did not elaborate on how he knew this. The vehicle was later recovered loaded with ammunition.
The authorities also arrested the leader of a political bloc opposed to the junta, accusing him of having been involved in the attack.
Gomes Junior, who is currently living in exile in Portugal, was not immediately reachable for comment.
Decades of turmoil and regular military coups since it won independence in 1974 have ballooned the size of the army and made Guinea-Bissau's maze of mangrove-lined islands a smuggling route for Latin American drugs cartels.
The elections earlier this year were meant to put the country on the road to stability and to improve its ability to clamp down on drugs trafficking.
(Reporting by Alberto Dabo; writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Mark Heinrich, Richard Valdmanis and Charlotte Cooper)