By Camillus Eboh
ABUJA (Reuters) - West Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS will deploy troops to Guinea Bissau by Friday to oversee reform of the local army and a gradual one-year transition to civilian rule after an April 12 coup, Nigeria said on Monday.
But the move was denounced by Guinea Bissau's main political party PAIGC, which wants an immediate return to civilian rule and accused ECOWAS of giving legitimacy to the coup leaders.
The tiny coastal state has been plagued with coups and unrest since its 1974 independence from Portugal and has become a major hub for Latin American cocaine being shipped into Europe. The United States and others have said that senior army officials are implicated in the trade.
"We will deploy before the 18th of this month," Nigerian Defence Minister Mohammed Bello Haliru told reporters on the margins of a meeting of the 15-state bloc's military chiefs in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
Haliru did not give details on the mission. ECOWAS announced earlier this month a plan to send troops to safeguard a political transition due to lead to elections in 12 months. A final contingent of around 600 troops is expected.
There was no immediate reaction on the deployment from the shadowy self-styled Military Command which carried out the coup. ECOWAS has said it believes Army Chief of Staff General Antonio Indjai was the coup leader but the Military Command denies that.
The ECOWAS contingent is intended to replace an Angolan force of similar size that had also been overseeing reform of the army. The coup leaders justified their power grab last month by accusing the Angolans of meddling in local affairs.
The coup cut short a two-round presidential election widely expected to be won by former prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior, who was briefly arrested by the junta before being released. He is now in exile in Ivory Coast.
Fernando Mendonca, a spokesman for Gomes Junior's PAIGC party, said it would not recognize the ECOWAS mission.
"We reject the deployment of ECOWAS troops because the ECOWAS is giving legitimacy to the April 12 coup," he said.
To the dismay of the PAIGC, which wants Gomes Junior to be given the chance to stand in a new election, ECOWAS proposed last week that the country's parliament speaker Manuel Sherifo Nhamadjo assume the function of interim president.
Analysts and diplomats have noted a divergence of views between ECOWAS and Angola on how to deal with Guinea Bissau.
ECOWAS' move to back Nhamadjo and acceptance of a one-year-long transition contrasts with Angola's perceived preference for Gomes Junior being allowed to quickly resume his bid for the presidency.
An adviser to the Guinea-Bissau government told Reuters just before the coup that Angola had a $500 million plan to build a bauxite mine and deepwater port in Guinea Bissau, but the project had been stalled due to the uncertain political climate.
(Additional reporting in Bissau by Alberto Dabo; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Mark Heinrich)