BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau – Soldiers assassinated the president of Guinea-Bissau in his palace Monday hours after a bomb blast killed the army chief who had been his political rival for decades.
A military statement broadcast on state radio attributed President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira's death to an "isolated" group of unidentified soldiers whom the armed forces said they were now hunting down. It said the military was not planning a coup in the West Africa nation, which has been a transit point for the cocaine trade to Europe.
The capital, Bissau, was calm despite the pre-dawn gunfight at the palace, which erupted hours after armed forces chief of staff Gen. Batiste Tagme na Waie — a longtime rival of the president — was killed by a bomb blast at his headquarters.
The former Portuguese colony has suffered multiple coups and attempted coups since 1980, when Vieira himself first took power in one.
Following an emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday, military spokesman Zamora Induta said top military brass told government officials "this was not a coup d'etat."
"We reaffirmed our intention to respect the democratically elected power and the constitution of the republic," Induta said. "The people who killed President Vieira have not been arrested, but we are pursuing them. They are an isolated group. The situation is under control."
The constitution calls for parliament chief Raimundo Pereira to succeed the president in the event of his death.
Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. said the fact that the military did not go through with a coup deserves praise. "The military showed their patriotism by not seizing power," he said, adding that both Vieira and Waie will receive state funerals in the coming days.
Vieira had ruled the impoverished nation on the Atlantic coast of Africa for 23 of the past 29 years. He came to power in the 1980 coup, but was forced out 19 years later at the onset of the country's civil war. He later returned from exile in Portugal to run in the country's 2005 election and won the vote.
The armed forces' statement dismissed claims that the military killed Vieira in retaliation for Waie's assassination late Sunday. The two men were considered staunch political and ethnic rivals and both had survived recent assassination attempts.
Vieira, from the minority Papel ethnic group, once blamed majority ethnic Balanta officers for attempting a coup against him, condemning several to death and others to long prison sentences.
Among them was Waie, who in the late 1980s was dropped off on a deserted island off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, according to Waie's chief of staff, Lt. Col. Bwam Namtcho. Waie was left there for years before he was allowed to return and officially pardoned by Vieira.
Namtcho said the bomb that killed Waie had been hidden underneath the staircase leading to his office.
Hours later, volleys of automatic gunfire rang out for at least two hours before dawn in Bissau and residents said soldiers had converged on Vieira's palace.
The Portuguese news agency LUSA reported that troops attacked the palace with rockets and rifles. The president's press chief, Barnabe Gomes, escaped but was struck by a bullet in his right shoulder, LUSA said.
It was the second attack on Vieira in recent months. In November, Vieira's residence was attacked by soldiers with automatic weapons who killed at least one of his guards. The president complained later that the army never intervened, leaving his presidential guard to fight off the attackers.
In January, Waie received a call from the presidency asking him to come at once, said Namtcho. But when Waie stepped outside to get into his car, unidentified gunmen opened fire on the car. Waie narrowly escaped and Namtcho says he assumed the attack had been ordered by the president.
Luis Sanca, security adviser to Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., confirmed that the president had died but gave no details.
The African Union condemned the killings, calling them "cowardly and heinous attacks which have come at a time of renewed efforts by the international community to support peace-building efforts in Guinea-Bissau."
In Lisbon, the Portuguese Foreign Ministry lamented Vieira's death and said it was "fundamental that all political and military authorities in the country respect the constitutional order."
Portugal said it would call an emergency meeting of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries, an eight-member organization based in Lisbon.