Security forces in Guinea-Bissau say they killed three former government ministers as part of an operation to stop a coup attempt. One of those killed was a candidate in the presidential elections taking place later this month.
A statement from state intelligence services says former interior minister Baciro Dabo, former defense minister Helder Proenca, and former prime minister Faustino Embali were killed by military police as part of an operation to foil an attempted coup.
"Among the authors of this coup," the statement says, "some came quietly while others tried to resist, that is why they were killed." The statement says security forces acted after gathering proof that coup plotters planned to kill the head of the armed forces, overthrow interim leader Raimundo Pereira and dissolve the national assembly.
Dabo was running in June 28 elections to replace long-time president Joao Bernardo Vieira who was killed in his home in March hours after a bomb blast killed his chief political rival, Army Chief of Staff General Batista Tagme Na Waie.
While standing as an independent candidate, analysts say Dabo had the backing of Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. The prime minister initially wanted the ruling party to make Pereira its presidential candidate. But when the central committee chose former national assembly chair Malam Bacai Sanha instead, analysts say Gomes threw his support behind Dabo.
Following Friday's killing, Guinea-Bissau's council of ministers issued a statement regretting what it called the "tragic events" that ended in the death of political figures "from whom much more was expected."
European Union foreign policy chief Jose Manuel Barroso condemned the killings, calling on the government to thoroughly investigate, bring the perpetrators to justice, and "take the necessary measure to prevent impunity."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed "dismay" at the news and said the killing should not interfere with this month's elections.
The United States says it is particularly disturbing that these events would happen in the run up to the election and calls on all parties to refrain from further violence and respect the rule of law.
It is the latest political violence in a country that has seen a series of army mutinies and coups since independence from Portugal in 1974.
Regional diplomats say that instability has been made worse by Latin American drug gangs using remote airstrips along Guinea-Bissau's coastline to smuggle cocaine to Europe.
Several candidates are running to succeed President Vieira. But the vote is expected to be primarily a race between the ruling party's Sanha and the main opposition Social Renewal Party's Kumba Yala.