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Sao Tome Elite Police Force Negotiates After Hostage Taking

Members of an elite police force known as "Ninjas" in the West African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe are negotiating with the government, after releasing a dozen security officers they took hostage earlier this week. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Ninjas' spokesman, Wilson Quaresma, told VOA his group will strike again if the government does not meet the group's demands.

Quaresma said if they cannot reach a solution through negotiations, they will move to what he called "Plan B." He did not elaborate, he only said that everyone will know what "Plan B" is once it is executed.

Sao Tome's Minister of Justice spokesman Justine Vega declined comment while negotiations are ongoing.

Known formally as the rapid intervention police, dozens of Ninjas occupied the main police station on Monday. They took a dozen officers hostage, renewing their demand for bonus pay from the government for four months of training in Angola. They are also demanding greater independence within the government security forces.

The Ninjas made the same demands last December, storming the police headquarters.

Government officials refused to negotiate this time with the elite forces until they released the hostages, which they did early Wednesday.

The island government created the Angolan-trained force after a 2003 coup attempt against President Fradique de Menezes by government security forces.

The revolters complained of corruption and widespread poverty.

Portugal-based journalist Rui Neumann has researched Sao Tome's armed force revolts, and says the Ninjas are trying to defend their jobs in the face of growing criticism.

Neumann says the Ninjas' demands for bonus pay and autonomy have gone unanswered by the government because their existence as a force has become a taboo topic in Sao Tome. He says some leaders question why less than $200,000 islanders need such a highly trained rapid-response force, or even an armed force at all in a pacifist country that has seen little aggression from within, or from neighboring countries.

London-based political analyst Chris Melville with Control Risks says if the government does not restructure its security forces, more revolts are inevitable.

"It [the hostage taking] does raise questions about the vulnerability of government structures vis-à-vis the security forces, particularly in the context of rising political tensions that are expected as Sao Tome becomes an oil producer in the coming years," he said. "This is a cause for concern."

Nine years ago, oil reserves were discovered near the islands, none of it has proven to be good enough to sell. More than half of Sao Tome and Principe's residents continue to live in poverty, with little access to health care or education, making on average about $400 a year.