Supporters of Guinea-Bissau's deposed leader, Kumba Yalla, gathered for a march in the capital, Bissau, despite government warnings that the protest is illegal. A visiting delegation of regional heads of state failed Saturday to convince Mr. Yalla to renounce his earlier claim that he remains the legitimate president and that June elections should be canceled.
A man shouts to a crowd of supporters of former Guinea-Bissau ruler Kumba Yalla gathered in a stronghold of the deposed president's Social Renovation Party, known as the PRS, in the capital Bissau. "Long live the PRS", he shouted. "Long live Kumba Yalla".
Thousands of Yalla followers, some armed with traditional weapons and machetes, waited for a planned march to government buildings to begin. Many were bussed in from the country's interior to take part in the rally in support of their leader. One man said he wants Mr. Yalla to rule forever. Mr. Yalla is Guinea-Bissau's elected leader, he said. The government must recognize him as president, he says, because the military overthrew him before he could finish his mandate.
Mr. Yalla was ousted in a military coup in 2003. Earlier this month, Guinea-Bissau's Supreme Court revoked a charter that excluded him from politics for five years, a move that cleared the way for him to run in presidential elections scheduled for June 19th. But last week, Mr. Yalla said he was still the former Portuguese colony's president and elections are not needed.
Guinea-Bissau's government said Sunday's march was illegal. A strong presence of soldiers and police was visible on Bissau's main roads and near government buildings.
Interim Prime Minister Carlos Gomes accused unnamed opposition parties Friday of plotting to eliminate the country's military leadership. He said arms are circulating in the country, and that the government would crush any attempt to derail the electoral process.
A special delegation of regional leaders including the head of the West African political bloc ECOWAS Niger President Mamadou Tandja, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade met Saturday with members of Guinea-Bissau's government, military, and civil society.
An audience with Mr. Yalla failed to convince the deposed leader to back down from his claim to power.
The head of Guinea-Bissau's Party of Solidarity and Work, Yankumba Mjie, was one of the political leaders that met with the delegation. He said most citizens and candidates agree that the election date is irreversible. He said despite Mr. Yalla's maneuvering, Guinea-Bissau is ready to go ahead with the polls with the help of ECOWAS and the African Union.
Civil society activist Macaria Barai condemned Mr. Yalla's actions as irresponsible. But she says she still has faith that Guinea-Bissau will now rise above the cycle of coups and military rulers that have marked much of its history since independence.
"People have to understand their behavior," said Mr. Barai. "They have to know that the wrong words, they do not help at all. And if you have to be a ruler, you have to respect the people who voted for you. I am very optimistic, because we are seeking the road to peace. We have to fall and stand, fall and stand. And one day, we will stand definitely."
In a statement released by the delegation of West African leaders at the end of their visit, they urged all candidates to respect the agreed upon election date and to avoid actions or rhetoric that might incite violence.