By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU (Reuters) - Soldiers in Guinea-Bissau attacked the residence of former Prime Minister and presidential election front-runner Carlos Gomes Junior on Thursday in what regional ministers condemned as an attempted coup in the small West African state.
Confusion and fear reined in the crumbling riverside capital, Bissau, after automatic weapons fire and several explosions sent residents scurrying for the shelter of their homes.
State television and radio went off the air and armed soldiers were on the streets and controlling major roads in and out of the capital, witnesses and diplomats said.
They said the target of the evening attack by unidentified members of the military was the residence of Gomes Junior, candidate for the ruling PAIGC party, and they added the action appeared aimed at derailing the unfinished election.
Gomes Junior won close to an outright majority in last month's first round of voting in the poor former Portuguese colony, which has a history of coups and barracks revolts.
A second-round run-off had been set for April 29.
The whereabouts of Gomes Junior, who was known to be unpopular with some members of the military because of his support for downsizing and reforming the bloated army, was not immediately known.
Rumors circulating among some Bissau residents that he had been killed in the attack, which set at least one house on fire, could not be confirmed.
After the gunfire and explosions, armed soldiers stopped journalists from approaching the residence of Gomes Junior, which is almost opposite the Angolan embassy.
Foreign ministers of the West African regional grouping ECOWAS, who were meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to discuss the situation in another regional state, Mali, that suffered a coup last month, condemned the events in Guinea-Bissau.
"As in the case of Mali, ECOWAS formally and rigorously condemns such an attempted coup d'etat. ... It's unacceptable and it's not accepted by ECOWAS," Ivorian Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan said.
Also in Abidjan, Guinea-Bissau Foreign Minister Mamadu Djalo Pires said soldiers continued to occupy the streets of Bissau. "We're waiting to hear what they have to say," he said.
He called for an "energetic reaction" from the international community against what he called "a coup d'etat."
In Bissau, one political source, who asked not be named, said soldiers had arrested the country's interim president, Raimundo Pereira, a former parliament speaker who is also a PAIGC member.
Senior government officials appeared to be in fear of their lives. "I'm in a situation of insecurity right now, I can't talk," Interior Minister Fernando Gomes told Reuters, his voice edged with tension.
Pires said he had spoken by phone earlier to interim Prime Minister Adiato Djalo Nandigna, who had told him she was "under fire" at that point.
Guinea-Bissau, whose weak governance has made it a haven for Latin American drug cartels transshipping cocaine to Europe, is electing a president to replace Malam Bacai Sanha, who died in a Paris hospital in January after a long illness.
Gomes Junior was due to contest the run-off this month, but his second-round rival, Kumba Yala, had said he would boycott the vote over alleged first-round rigging.
Only hours before the shooting, Yala, a former president who claims ethnic ties with the mostly Balanta military, had warned of "consequences" if campaigning for the second round went ahead.
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world's most fragile and volatile states. Its main official export is cashew nuts and an ordinary Bissau Guinean lives on less than $2 a day.
Political assassinations, health problems and chronic meddling by an oversized military have prevented any president from serving a full term since multi-party politics began in 1994.
Top military officials in Bissau have been accused by the United States of being drugs runners, and diplomats say the army is aware of, if not involved in, every cocaine-filled plane that lands on its soil. Gomes Junior's critics say even he is complicit in the trade, a charge he denies.
But it was not clear what faction or factions of the military had carried out Thursday's attack.
"I'm out of it, I don't know who's behind this," Daha Bana, a military spokesman and assistant to armed forces chief of staff Antonio Indjai, told Reuters.
Thursday's shooting came just days after news that Angola, which is also a former Portuguese colony, but because of its oil resources, much richer than Guinea-Bissau, was ending its military mission to help modernize the army in the smaller state.
The Angolan mission, agreed in 2010, had been designed to help end the military coups that have plagued Guinea-Bissau since it won independence from Portugal in 1974.
(Reporting by Alberto Dabo in Bissau, David Lewis in Bamako and Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney)