The African Union and the West African bloc ECOWAS on Tuesday condemned an ‘attempted coup’ in Guinea-Bissau after heavy gunfire was heard near a government compound where the president had been chairing a cabinet meeting.
If confirmed, this would be the second military power grab in West Africa in as many weeks after a coup in Burkina Faso on Jan. 24.
“ECOWAS is following with great concern the evolution of the situation in Guinea-Bissau … where military gunfire is taking place around the Government Palace,” the organisation said.
The African Union issued a similar statement, adding that some government members were being detained and calling on the military to release them. It gave no details.
President Umaro Sissoco Embalo and cabinet members were in the compound, surrounded by the military, according to three sources — one diplomatic, one security and one police. The president and ministers’ exact situation was unclear.
Political instability has blighted Guinea-Bissau for decades, with nine coups or attempted coups since independence from Portugal in 1974.
The Portuguese embassy urged its citizens in Guinea-Bissau to stay at home.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply concerned” by the reports from Guinea-Bissau, a spokesman said.
A security source with contacts inside the Government Palace said an unknown number of people had been hit by gunfire. A second source said two people were dead, but it was unclear who they were.
An unverified video shared on social media showed three heavily armed men in civilian clothing emerging from a four-by-four vehicle in the Government Palace car park, gunshots echoing in the background.
Normally busy streets around the compound were deserted, a civil society activist said. Another unverified video shared on social media appeared to show a man standing outside the compound firing a rocket-propelled grenade.
Members of government did not answer telephone calls from Reuters seeking verification of what was happening.
Sissoco Embalo had begun chairing the extraordinary cabinet meeting at around 10 a.m., entering the building with a heavy security detail, a diplomatic source said.
The cabinet meeting was being held to prepare for a forthcoming ECOWAS summit in response to last week’s military takeover in Burkina Faso, the latest in a rash of coups across the region in the last 18 months.
“It looks increasingly hard to argue against the idea of coup contagion,” said Eric Humphrey-Smith, an analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
“When added to successful coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Chad in the past year, there is no doubt that West African leaders are nervously looking over their shoulders.”
Embalo has been at odds with his prime minister, Nuno Gomes Nabiam, for weeks. The prime minister voiced opposition to a minor government shake-up last week in which a handful of ministers were replaced.
The country was thrown into post-election turmoil two years ago when the runner-up Domingos Simoes Pereira and his powerful PAIGC party contested the results that handed Embalo the presidency. Pereira accused Embalo of illegally seizing power with the backing of the country’s military, which he denied.