By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU (Reuters) - Soldiers in Guinea-Bissau seized government offices and controlled main roads in the capital on Friday after attacking the former prime minister's home in an apparent coup to derail his election to the presidency, diplomats and residents said.
Unidentified soldiers attacked Carlos Gomes Junior's residence in the crumbling coastal capital Bissau with machine guns and heavy weapons fire on Thursday evening, sending residents scurrying for the safety of their homes.
The whereabouts of Gomes Junior, the presidential candidate of the ruling PAIGC party who was known to be unpopular with elements of the restless military in the coup-plagued West African state, remained unknown on Friday.
Armed soldiers guarded the offices of the presidency, the state broadcaster and other key locations and main roads in and out of the city, which was otherwise calm as Friday dawned. Most TV and radios were off the air.
The former prime minister won close to an outright majority in last month's first round of voting in a presidential election. He was widely expected to be elected in a run-off set for April 29.
"It's very well known that the army didn't like Carlos Gomes Junior and he was about to be elected. So they either had to kill him or make sure he wasn't elected," one Bissau-based diplomat, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
But there was no immediate communique from the military.
Government ministers and other officials, including the judicial police chief, were in hiding. At least one, Interior Minister Fernando Gomes, said they feared for their lives.
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.
On one radio station that was broadcasting, RDP Africa, the son of Guinea-Bissau national election commission chief Desejado Lima da Costa said soldiers had invaded and looted his father's house. "They didn't find my father or mother, they are in a safe place," Camilo Lima da Costa told the radio.
"ATTEMPTED COUP D'ETAT"
Late on Thursday, foreign ministers of the West African regional grouping ECOWAS, who were meeting in the 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," Ivorian Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan said. "It's unacceptable and it's not accepted by ECOWAS."
Guinea-Bissau Foreign Minister Mamadu Djalo Pires, who was at the meeting, called for an "energetic reaction" from the international community against what he called "a coup d'etat".
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's rival in the run-off, Kumba Yala, had said he would boycott the vote over alleged first-round rigging.
Only hours before the attack, 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, a former Portoguese colony which won independence in 1974, 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 meddling by an oversized military have prevented any president from serving a full term since multi-party politics began in 1994. Gomes Junior had supported downsizing the military
Top military officials in Bissau have been accused by the United States of being drugs runners. 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.
The shooting came just days after news that Angola, also a former Portuguese colony, was ending its two-year-old military mission to help modernize the army in Guinea Bissau. The mission was designed to help end military coups in the country.
(Additional reporting by Mamadu Cande in Bissau, David Lewis in Bamako and Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)