BISSAU (Reuters) - Six people were killed in a gun battle at an airforce base near Guinea-Bissau's capital early on Sunday in what diplomatic sources described as an apparent failed counter-coup attempt.
The tiny former Portuguese colony on Africa's west coast is in the midst of a messy recovery after the army overthrew the government in April, derailing elections midstream, and diplomatic and military sources said the violence may have been orchestrated by supporters of the self-exiled former premier.
"It appears to have been a failed counter-coup," one diplomatic source said, asking not to be named.
Military sources said "rebels" had attacked the airforce base in Bra, about 7 kilometers (5 miles) from the capital Bissau at about 3 am but were repelled after two hours of fighting.
"There was an exchange of Kalashnikov fire and then the rebels took refuge in a building near the base," a military source said on condition of anonymity.
He said government soldiers used rocket-propelled grenades on the building before killing several of the attackers. A Reuters witness saw six bodies near the base.
Witnesses said the army had set up checkpoints and was checking vehicles on the main road leaving Bissau, but added that the capital appeared otherwise calm.
The same military source said that some of the attackers appeared to be from an ethnic group, Djolla, common in neighboring Senegal's southern Casamance region.
Decades of turmoil in Guinea-Bissau since it became independent in 1974 have made its maze of mangrove-lined islands a hub for Latin American drugs cartels smuggling cocaine to Europe.
Elections earlier this year were meant to put the country on the road to stability and to improve its chances of clamping down on drugs trafficking, but instead triggered more chaos after the army detained poll front-runner and former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior before the second round.
The junta said Gomes Junior had a secret pact with Angola, which had a contingent of soldiers in Bissau at the time, to eliminate the military's leadership.
Gomes Junior fled into exile in Portugal after being released under international pressure, while several of his allies took refuge in Gambia, a sliver of land sandwiched by northern and southern Senegal.
Led by General Antonio Injai, the junta has since handed power to a transitional civilian government charged with setting up elections, though international divisions over its legitimacy have stalled progress.
Diplomatic and military sources said the fighting on Sunday may have been launched by Gomes Junior supporters, incensed that the military had blocked his widely anticipated election win.
Guinea-Bissau's interim president Manuel Sherifo Nhamadjo has backing from West African regional block ECOWAS - which has played a leading role in mediating the crisis.
But Nhamadjo lacks the full support of the United Nations, the European Union and the CPLP grouping of Portuguese-speaking countries who say his government remains under army influence.
U.N. Special Representative to Guinea-Bissau Joseph Mutaboba said he was seeking more information on the incident from Guinea-Bissau's Defence Department as well as from ECOWAS, which has a 600-strong stabilization force in the country.
He said he had contacted ECOWAS to "express our concern over possible political and security implications and offer the U.N.'s assistance if needed by the local population."
(Reporting by Alberto Dabo; Additional reporting and writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Osborn)