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Controversial Candidates to Run in Guinea Bissau Elections

Two controversial former rulers of Guinea Bissau will be allowed to participate in presidential elections next month, raising concerns about a possible split in the military.

The Supreme Court has approved 14 out of 21 possible presidential candidates, including ex-military ruler Joao Bernardo 'Nino' Vieira and former President Kumba Yalla, both of whom were ousted in coups.

West Africa analyst Chris Melville, from the London based World Markets Research Centre, believes the court's decision to allow the two former rulers to run for president was aimed at avoiding a possible split in the military, which has played a large role in the small country's turbulent political history.

"What probably happened was that, the army high command was aware that trying to exclude either Yalla or Nino would have resulted in the exacerbation of tensions between the armed forces, which are split along ethnic lines," he said. "And there's a strong pro-Nino faction within the middle-ranking officers class, and then a very pro-Yalla faction amongst the rank and file."

A former military head of state, Joao Vieira, also known as Nino, ruled Guinea Bissau for 18 years, until a military uprising in 1999. Mr. Vieira is accused of killing five senior military officers who were possibly planning a coup against him, but parliament is expected to pass an amnesty law lifting the charges.

Mr. Melville, the analyst, says Mr. Vieira's candidacy may have a de-stabilizing effect in Guinea Bissau because it has split the ruling party. Thirty-seven leading party members were suspended Sunday, when they declared their support for Mr. Vieira instead of the party's chosen candidate.

The other contentious candidate, Mr. Kumba Yala, was elected to succeed Mr. Vieira as president. He was widely unpopular, and people blamed him for the country's economic decline. He was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 2003.

Under a charter meant to guide the country back to democracy, he was banned from politics for five years.

An analyst for the Senegalese-based human rights organization RADDO, Abu Bake Modje, says he is concerned that, if Mr. Yalla does not win the election, there could be a coup.

Mr. Modje says that Mr. Yalla has support from his Balanta ethnic group in the army, and will use it to come back into power. One third of Guinea Bissau's population is Balanta, as well as most of the army's rank and file.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also concerned Mr. Yalla's candidacy could jeopardize the election process, and that the small country could slide back into civil war.

The United Nations special envoy to Guinea Bissau, Joaquim Chissano, said Tuesday evening that he had the assurance of the army that it would strictly respect the legality of the state.