By Alberto Dabo
BISSAU (Reuters) - Six weeks after it toppled the government and derailed elections, Guinea-Bissau's military junta said on Tuesday it was handing power back to the West African state's civilian leaders.
This follows a deal between the self-styled Military Command and the regional bloc ECOWAS that put in place transitional president Manuel Sherifo Nhamadjo, installed a 600-strong ECOWAS force and promised new elections in 12 months.
"Starting today, the Military Command will hand power to civilians," spokesman Daha Bana Na Walna told reporters, adding that this would be the junta's last news conference.
Guinea-Bissau has suffered several coups and army uprisings since independence from Portugal in 1974, but the latest one has set back western efforts to combat drugs cartels using the country as a transshipment point to Europe.
Coming shortly after the March 22 coup by mutinous soldiers in democratic Mali, it also further undermined West Africa's fragile gains in democracy.
Bissau soldiers took power in an overnight putsch on April 12, detaining interim president Raimundo Pereira and former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, the front-runner in presidential elections.
Both were later released and fled the country.
The Military Command, believed to have been headed by Armed Forces Chief Antonio Indjai, has said repeatedly since the coup that it wanted to remove Gomes Junior from the election process because he had made a 'secret pact' with Angola to eliminate Guinea-Bissau's military leadership.
Gomes Junior had been prime minister for years and was a vocal supporter of efforts to reform the army, notorious for meddling in politics, and to combat cocaine smuggling. The United States has named two top Guinea-Bissau military officers as drugs kingpins.
ECOWAS said on May 11 it backed parliament speaker Nhamadjo as interim president in Guinea-Bissau, a move immediately rejected within Gomes Junior's political party, PAIGC, but accepted by other parties and the junta.
The bloc of 15 West African countries has since been criticized by the United Nations and a body grouping Portuguese speaking countries led by Angola for going too softly on Guinea-Bissau's coup leaders in its transition deal.
Diplomatic sources said ECOWAS's failure to ensure Gomes Junior's return to complete the election process allowed the junta to achieve its goal of removing him. Gomes Junior won nearly 50 percent of votes in a first-round election in March and was widely expected to win an April run-off.
The UN special representative to Guinea-Bissau, Joseph Mutaboba, told Reuters last week that ECOWAS's deal with the junta fell short of its 'zero tolerance' policy for coups, and Angola's official newspaper has accused ECOWAS of failing to consult Guinea-Bissau's other partners.
Gomes Junior was a supporter of a planned Angolan investment in bauxite mining and port development, though officials said the $500 million plan was on ice before the coup, largely because of security fears.
A 600-strong force of West African soldiers and police intended to oversee the return to democracy began arriving in Bissau late last week, and is expected to replace some 200 Angolan troops already in the country.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Tim Pearce)