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Uneasy Calm Returns to Guinea Bissau After Assassinations

The African Union's Peace and Security Council will hold emergency talks today to discuss the situation in Guinea-Bissau following the assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira. Uneasy calm has returned to the capital, Bissau after soldiers loyal to slain army chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Waie killed Mr. Vieira as he tried to flee the presidential palace. Vieira's death occurred only hours after the country's chief of staff was also felled in a bomb blast. The late president's cabinet has announced seven days of national mourning, promising a full-scale judicial inquiry into the assassinations.

The army claimed responsibility for killing the president as he tried to escape from soldiers reportedly loyal to the chief of staff. Soldiers blame President Vieira for the death of their chief of staff, who has recently been critical of the president. Under the country's constitution, the speaker of parliament is expected to take over the reign of government pending an election in 90 days. Bissau Guinean journalist Umaru Djau tells reporter Peter Clottey that most people are struggling to come to terms with the rationale behind the assassinations.

"It is sad to say, but I would think that there is a sense of relief in Guinea-Bissau, particularly the capital city Bissau after the gunfire that took place overnight and the assassination of the chief of staff Tagme na Waie and consequently the President Joao Bernardo Vieira, and I think people are getting to the sense that this may be over. And particularly the relief came after the military said that they will respect the constitution of Guinea-Bissau. Therefore, there is no attempt of any kind of coup d'état. The military's statement helped calm most people after the assassinations," Djau noted.

He said it is not clear whether the assassination of the late chief of staff was drug related.

"Well, we do not know that. This time there are lots of speculations in Guinea-Bissau and also abroad. You know that Guinea-Bissau has been on the map as far as drug activities are concerned worldwide and that is why a lot of people are saying that Guinea-Bissau is a narco state so, therefore it will plunge into turmoil and civil war. But as far as saying the death of the chief of staff was related to drug trafficking is really just a rumor. We really do not know whether there is a connection between his assassination and the drug-related activities in Guinea-Bissau," he said.

So far, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. heaped praised on the military, calling them "patriots" for not seizing power in a coup. The constitution calls for parliament chief Raimundo Pereira to succeed the president in the event of his death. Djau said the military knows the international pressure scrutiny it will come under if it were to take over the country through the barrel of the gun.

"I think due to international pressure the military decided not to take over the government. I spoke with the military spokesman today, Arsenio Balde, and he promised me that they (military) will respect the constitution of Guinea-Bissau and therefore they will let the constitution take its own course, meaning that they will let the president of the national assembly, Raimundo Pereira, to be the next president of Guinea-Bissau," Djau pointed out.

He said although the constitution demands a presidential election within 90 days after the demise of a president, it would be difficult to see how that could be managed, due to the financial challenges the country faces.

"According to the constitution of Guinea-Bissau, there has to be an election within 90 days. So I'm thinking that probably within 90 days there would be a way for Guinea-Bissau to organize presidential election within that 90 days' time. But as we know, Guinea-Bissau is a very poor country, so there are no guarantees that that will happen," he said.

Djau said it is unclear whether the cabinet will keep its word by launching a full-scale judicial investigation into the assassinations.

"I don't know whether there would be a full investigation. You know, Guinea-Bissau is known by its coup d'état over the years, and there has never been complete investigation into them. As you may recall, there have been three different chiefs of staff that have been killed in the last three years or so, and there has not been any complete investigation into the killings to let the people know who are behind the killings. So there is no guarantee that there would be investigations into these assassinations," Djau pointed out.

Tensions between President Vieira and the army chief of staff reportedly turned sour in January, when Gen. Waie received a call from the president's office, asking him to come at once. Waie rushed outside and was nearly killed when assailants opened fire on his car, a sequence of events that made Waie suspect that President Vieira was behind the attempt on his life.

Meanwhile, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have condemned the assassinations. Some political analysts expressed fear the assassinations could shake up Guinea-Bissau alliances with drug cartels that use the country as a transit point for shipping cocaine to Europe, leading to new alliances.