By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU, April 17, Reuters - The African Union (AU) on Tuesday suspended Guinea-Bissau over last week's coup, adding to pressure on military chiefs who said they were ready to restore power to civilians after talks with regional mediators.
"The (AU's) Peace and Security Council decides to suspend with immediate effect Guinea Bissau from all activities...until restoration of constitutional order," said AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra after a meeting at the bloc's headquarters in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Foreign governments and international organizations have condemned Guinea-Bissau's military after soldiers cut short a presidential election in the impoverished West African state, detaining election front-runner and former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes as well as interim President Raimundo Pereira.
The former Portuguese colony has seen several coups and army revolts since independence in 1974 and the latest is a setback for efforts by Western donors to reduce military meddling in politics and counter the influence of drug-trafficking cartels using the country as a transhipment point.
Suspension is the continental body's normal response to any interruption of constitutional rule in one of its members. However, talks between Guinea-Bissau's armed forces leadership and regional mediators appeared to have made some progress on the need to return to civilian rule.
With uncertainty gripping the crumbling coastal capital Bissau, which has been tense since the coup, many residents have fled to find safter locations in the interior.
Appealing for calm, the military chiefs said in a communiqué they were banning all public demonstrations "whether for or against Carlos Gomes Junior".
A high-level delegation from the West African regional grouping ECOWAS, which has condemned the coup as "unacceptable", met Guinea-Bissau's military overnight and ECOWAS Commission head Desire Kadre Ouedraogo said there was an agreement "on the return to constitutional order".
Lieutenant-Colonel Daha Bana na Walna, spokesman for the Guinea-Bissau army leadership, said ECOWAS would send a technical team to assist in restoring civilian rule.
"It was agreed that ECOWAS would help with the restoration of civilian government," he told Reuters. Na Walna said the country was calm and there was no disorder.
ECOWAS had also insisted in the talks that Gomes Junior and Pereira be freed.
"As soon as the conditions of security exist for this," they will be freed," na Walna said. But he did not specify when or whether Gomes Junior would be allowed to stand again for fresh elections, which the military has said it wants to be held.
Diplomats said the political outlook remained uncertain.
"This is a step back for the country in terms of stability and democracy, as there had been a general calming over the past three years. The military cannot be expected to govern," one diplomat closely following the situation said.
SHADOWY COUP LEADERSHIP
It was the second coup in West Africa in less than a month. A March 22 military takeover in Mali saw that Sahel country split in two with Tuareg and Islamist rebels holding the north.
Guinea-Bissau's military has announced the formation of a "national transition council" tasked with leading the nation to fresh elections. But a refusal to participate by the main political party, PAIGC, has robbed this of any credibility.
Gomes Junior and Pereira are PAIGC members.
The former was the expected winner of a scheduled April 29 presidential election run-off, interrupted by the coup.
Gomes Junior was unpopular with military chiefs because he backed plans to reform the bloated army, which is accused of involvement in drug-trafficking by Western security agencies.
Confusion persists over who exactly had ordered the detentions of Gomes Junior and Pereira on Thursday.
A shadowy self-styled "Military Command" said it acted to head off what it alleged was a secret pact between Gomes Junior and Angola to "annihilate Guinea-Bissau's armed forces".
Angola had been providing military trainers and advisers to the smaller state in a military cooperation mission. But it announced earlier this month that it was ending the mission.
Guinea-Bissau military spokesmen have declined to confirm rumors that armed forces Chief of Staff General Antonio Indjai was also removed in the coup, saying only that he was "safe".
But many believe Indjai, the nation's most influential military figure, was the architect. "The question has been whether Indjai is in detention or behind the coup but the consensus now is that it is the latter," the diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa, Pascal Fletcher and Mark John in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Louise Ireland)