By Richard Valdmanis and Alvaro Andrade
DAKAR/PRAIA (Reuters) - U.S. anti-narcotics agents have arrested the former navy chief of Guinea-Bissau, wanted by Washington as a suspected kingpin of the international drugs trade, in a sting operation off the coast of West Africa, sources familiar with the operation said.
Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto was detained by anti-narcotics officers along with four other Guinea-Bissau citizens on a boat in international waters on Tuesday, the sources told Reuters.
It was the most high-profile arrest to date in the fight against drugs trafficking in Guinea-Bissau, where South American cartels have used the mangrove-lined islands as a base for smuggling cocaine into Europe for more than a decade.
Na Tchuto, who has been involved in several failed coups in the former Portuguese colony, was transported to Cape Verde and would be sent to the United States for prosecution, the sources said.
Fernando Vaz, a spokesman for Guinea-Bissau's government, confirmed the arrest of the five men. He said they were captured by Cape Verdean agents, who then transferred them to U.S. authorities.
"Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto was arrested off the coast of Cape Verde in a boat flying the Panama flag," he said.
Cape Verdean officials in the capital, Praia, were not immediately available for comment.
Na Tchuto was one of two Bissau-Guineans designated as drug kingpins, or "significant foreign narcotics traffickers" by the U.S. government in 2010, and hit with a U.S. travel ban and asset freeze.
Both Bubo Na Tchuto and Air Force Chief of Staff Ibraima Papa Camara were linked to an aircraft suspected of flying several hundred kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to Guinea-Bissau in July 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department said.
Guinea-Bissau's military has repeatedly intervened in politics since independence from Portugal in 1974.
U.N. counter-narcotics officials say there is also evidence senior officers have helped Latin American cocaine cartels ferry tons of drugs from Colombia to Europe, using Guinea-Bissau's maze of coastal creeks and offshore islands to store and transfer them.
Guinea-Bissau is rich in natural resources - including minerals, cashews and some of the world's best fisheries - but political instability has hindered investment and kept most of its 1.6 million people mired in poverty.
The country has been in turmoil since soldiers last seized power in April 2012. A post-coup transition government released Na Tchuto from prison in June, after he was jailed following a failed December 2011 attempt to take over the country.
The current caretaker government of President Manuel Sherifo Nhamadjo was supposed to organize elections in May, but a summit of West African heads of state last month extended the transition period until the end of this year.
Army chief General Antonio Indjai has been accused of leading the April coup and the European Union says he still holds sway.
On Thursday, Indjai accused the British honorary consul in Bissau of spreading false rumors about the situation in the country and said the military would not tolerate anyone who tried to tarnish the nation's image abroad.
(Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Peter Cooney)