By Richard Valdmanis
DAKAR (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice has accused Guinea-Bissau's top military official of plotting to traffic cocaine to the United States and sell weapons to Colombian rebels, according to court documents seen by Reuters on Thursday.
The accusation against General Antonio Indjai - widely seen as the coup-prone West African nation's most powerful man - is the first official signal that criminality may go straight to the top in what has for years been labeled a 'narco-state'.
Guinea Bissau authorities repeatedly have denied any involvement in drug trafficking and Indjai is believed to be in the country.
The indictment filed in New York's Southern District Court and seen by a Reuters reporter, charges Indjai on four counts: "narco-terrorism conspiracy", conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, cocaine importation conspiracy and conspiracy to acquire and transfer anti-aircraft missiles.
The charges said Indjai planned to store FARC-owned cocaine in Guinea Bissau and sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to the organization, to be used to protect its cocaine processing operations in Colombia against U.S. military forces.
"These charges reveal how Indjai's sprawling drug and terror regime threatened the national security not only of his own country, but of countries across the globe," Michele Leonhart, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said.
"As the head of Guinea-Bissau's Armed Forces, Indjai had insider access to instruments of national power that made him an allegedly significant player in West Africa's dangerous drug trade," Leonhart said in a statement.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Indjai conspired to use his power and authority at the top of Guinea Bissau's military to be a middleman and his country to be a way-station for people he believed to be terrorists and narco-traffickers of Colombia's FARC rebel group.
Washington has labeled FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) a terrorist organization.
Guinea-Bissau's military has long been accused of involvement in trafficking tons of Latin American cocaine, using its mangrove-lined offshore islands as cover against the region's notoriously weak law enforcement.
"As with so many allegedly corrupt officials, he (Indjai) sold himself and use of his country for a price," Bharara said in the statement.
"The charges against Indjai, together with the recent arrests of his co-conspirators, have dismantled a network of alleged narco-terrorists," he added.
U.S. undercover agents snared Guinea-Bissau's former Navy chief rear admiral in a high-seas drugs sting on April 2 - the most high-profile score in the U.S. war on drugs in Africa.
U.S. authorities said in the statement that two of Indjai's co-conspirators Manuel Mamadi Mane and Saliu Sisse were also arrested in the sting.
Sources familiar with the operation say Indjai was also targeted, but he dodged the planned arrest by refusing to meet the undercover agents in international waters.
Indjai seized control of Guinea Bissau in a coup last April before he ceded power to a transitional government led by a civilian president, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, in a deal brokered by West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
The European Union and the CPLP grouping of Portuguese speaking nations have since refused to recognize Nhamadjo's administration, claiming it remains under the control of military officials involved in the drugs trade.
Na Tchuto and air force chief Ibraima Papa Camara were placed on the U.S. 'drugs kingpins' list in 2010 following a 2009 cocaine deal but Indjai was never placed on the list.
Undercover informants for the U.S. Drugs Enforcement Agency had met with Indjai, Na Tchuto and several other suspected traffickers several times since the middle of 2012 to set up the April 2 sting operation.
According to the court documents, Indjai was meant to provide the land for a front company to store the drugs in Guinea-Bissau and he told undercover agents at a military base in Guinea-Bissau last year that he would be an intermediary for the weapons sale.
"The General also stated that he would discuss the plan with the president of Guinea-Bissau," the court documents said.
Nhamadjo's government has vehemently denied any drugs links and said it would seek to defend Na Tchuto, a 63-year-old veteran of Guinea Bissau's independence war.
An estimated 50 tons of cocaine move through West Africa every year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, most of it heading north to European cities, where the drugs are worth almost $2 billion on the streets.
(Additional reporting by Bernard Vaughan in New York; Writing by David Lewis and Bate Felix; Editing by Michael Roddy)