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African Island State of Sao Tome and Principe Besieged by Coup - 2003-07-16


Military troops in the tiny west African island state of Sao Tome and Principe have launched a coup. Sao Tome is one of the world's poorest countries, but it also has potential oil wealth.

Troops detained top government ministers, including the country's first woman prime minister, and seized strategic buildings in the capital Sao Tome early Wednesday.

The mutineers also took over the state television and radio, which immediately went off the air. The coup took place as President Fradique de Menezes, who took power in 2001 after winning elections, was on a private trip outside the country.

The sound of gunfire could be heard for several hours in the capital, but no injuries were reported.

The former Portuguese colony, which is made up of small islands, has a population of about 150,000 people, and depends mostly on fishing and international aid.

Recent oil discoveries in its territorial waters in the Gulf of Guinea have brought hopes of quick economic development, but have also increased political rivalries.

There have been recent reports of assassination attempts against the president following increasing tensions between him and parliament. A new constitution was approved this year limiting the powers of the presidency.

The government recently asked the United States to establish a naval base in the islands to protect growing American oil interests in west Africa.

Sao Tome hopes to begin receiving oil money in 2004, as bidding has already started on drilling licenses for nine offshore oil blocks it jointly holds with Nigeria. Analysts believe waters off Sao Tome have substantial offshore oil reserves.

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