By Richard Valdmanis
DAKAR (Reuters) - West African regional bloc ECOWAS plans to send more than 600 troops to Guinea-Bissau in coming days with orders to protect people and institutions after a military coup there earlier this month, a senior ECOWAS source said on Wednesday.
The move could trigger renewed conflict in the impoverished coastal nation after the ruling military junta, which took power in an overnight coup on April 12, said it would treat any deployment of foreign troops as occupiers.
The former Portuguese colony has had several army uprisings since independence in 1974, but this latest has been a setback to Western and regional efforts to reform the military and combat drug cartels using the small west African country as a transshipment point for Latin American cocaine bound for Europe.
The ECOWAS source said a 638-strong regional force, which will include troops from regional military heavyweight Nigeria along with Ivory Coast, Senegal and Burkina Faso, would be deployed in Guinea-Bissau in the "next few days".
Officials from ECOWAS, Nigeria, and Senegal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
ECOWAS heads of state were due to meet in Ivory Coast on Thursday to discuss Guinea-Bissau as well as Mali, whose president was ousted by soldiers in March and where rebels have taken control of the vast northern desert.
A Western diplomatic source said the deployment of a foreign force in Guinea-Bissau risked renewing conflict in a country still recovering from a 1998-99 civil war, and an 11-year independence struggle before that. "They have the homefield advantage and decades of experience. These guys know how to fight," he said, asking not to be named.
The ECOWAS source said the deployment of the regional force would coincide with the withdrawal of a much smaller Angolan contingent that had been in the country as part of an effort to reform Guinea-Bissau's military.
Guinea-Bissau's army has been accused by Western nations of involvement in narcotics trafficking, and before the coup the United Nations had been coordinating efforts to shrink the bloated force and improve discipline within its ranks.
Soldiers took power in Guinea-Bissau by derailing a presidential election and detaining the poll's front-runner, ex-Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, after an overnight attack on his house with heavy weapons.
Gomes Junior, who supported army reform and was outspoken against drugs, was widely expected to win an April 29 run-off before the vote was pre-empted. The junta said Gomes Junior wanted to "annihilate Guinea-Bissau's armed forces."
The army leaders said last week they planned to create a National Transitional Council charged with setting new elections in two years, but the plan was rejected by ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations Security Council.
(Additional reporting by Kwasi Kpodo; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)