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Guinea-Bissau Gets Involved in Casamance Rebellion


Guinea-Bissau is getting involved in fighting among rival factions of Senegal's Casamance rebellion, leading to fears the long simmering, low-level conflict, could ignite on a new front.

Rocket launchers, machine guns, mortar fire and shelling have been heard since early this week in the porous border region between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, especially near the Bissau town of Sao Domingos.

More gun battles were heard Friday, while Bissau army officials said they had repulsed Casamance rebels trying to buy weapons in Sao Domingos.

At least three Bissau soldiers were reported killed in the fighting earlier this week, along with several civilians.

The hard-line rebel faction led by Salif Dialo says its bases inside Senegal are being attacked by the Guinea-Bissau army, while the army says it is dislodging rebel bases on the Bissau side of the border. Local journalists are also giving conflicting accounts.

But they agree the fighting comes amid increased tensions between Dialo and other rebel Casamance factions, including one led by Cesar Badiate. Other rebels and people in the region suspect Badiate of having found new backing with Guinea-Bissau's government, a charge denied by authorities.

An analyst with British-based Chatham House, Richard Reeve, says it is no surprise the conflict is starting up on a new front, since Guinea-Bissau's president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, and Dialo are old enemies.

"President Vieira was president until 1999 and again re-elected last year. His regime is becoming somewhat mixed up in this conflict," he said. "The particular faction led by Salif Dialo was involved in the overthrow of President Vieira in 1999, so there is potential that there is some sort of payback here, now that Vieira is back in power. Certainly, there is no love lost between President Vieira and this particular faction."

Dialo has also been leading rebels most opposed to successive peace deals with Senegal's government, saying they should get a better deal than just promises of economic help.

The Casamance conflict began in the early 1980s, and peaked in the 1990s, with rebels demanding independence, saying their region was never ruled by French colonialists and that, with Senegal's independence, they should have gotten their own country.

Physically, Casamance is separated from the rest of Senegal by small wedge-shaped Gambia, and the conflict has repeatedly involved not only rebel fighters and Senegal's army but also neighboring armies. Violence has always been low-level and sporadic, but civilians and fighters also continue to be maimed by many land mines littering the area.