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World - Africa

Gambia to try to mediate Guinea-Bissau crisis

Portuguese evacuate hundreds; pope urges peace

June 17, 1998
Web posted at: 6:05 a.m. EDT (1005 GMT)

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau (CNN) - Gambia is sending its foreign minister to Guinea-Bissau to try to mediate an end to a bloody revolt against President Joao Bernardo Vieira.

Portuguese marines helped evacuate 780 people from Bissau, the Guinea-Bissau capital, on Tuesday night after renewed fighting between rebels and pro-government forces, the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported.

Mohamed Lamin Sedat Jobe announced details of his mission on Tuesday following some of the fiercest artillery exchanges to date in a revolt that began in the former Portuguese colony on June 7.

Jobe told Reuters by telephone from Gambia that he planned to leave for the capital Bissau on a French ship later in the day.

"I will ask first for a cease-fire," he said, adding that he hoped to persuade Vieira and rebel leader Brigadier Ansumane Mane to travel to Gambia for talks.

Mane spent the first 17 years of his life in Gambia, a former British colony surrounded by francophone Senegal.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh shuttled between Cape Verde, Mauritania, Guinea and Senegal 12 to drum up support among fellow West African leaders for a mediation initiative.

Pope John Paul on Wednesday called on all sides in Guinea-Bissau's bloody conflict to lay down their weapons and urged the international community to press for peace in the former Portuguese colony.

"I appeal directly to all the parties in conflict to lay down their arms and stop the violence and the ensuing exodus of people," the pope said during his weekly general audience.

Fierce artillery exchanges

Forces loyal to Vieira, backed by soldiers from neighboring Senegal and Guinea, are trying to clear the rebels out of the sprawling Bra military camp on the outskirts of town and advance on the airport.

The rebels, dug in behind minefields, have been responding with heavy artillery fire.

Senegal's army, which intervened under a defense pact alongside forces loyal to Vieira and troops from Guinea, said on Saturday that they had taken Bra but later conceded that the rebels still held parts of the complex.

"The hostilities are continuing," its army spokesman Colonel Meissa Tamba told Reuters on Tuesday in Dakar. "Our objective remains the airport."

The revolt follows the sacking earlier this year of Mane, Vieira's former armed forces' commander, over alleged arms smuggling by senior army officers to rebels in Senegal's southern Casamance province.

Senegal says it has at least 1,300 soldiers fighting alongside Vieira loyalists. Guinea says it sent 400.

Thousands have fled

The fighting has led to a mass exodus from the capital. Portugal's Lusa news agency said that much of the city's 300,000 population had fled upcountry.

Several thousand citizens of other countries have left by sea for Senegal.

France's Foreign Ministry said that it had evacuated six of its diplomats from Bissau on Tuesday leaving behind just its ambassador and 11 soldiers after the embassy came under fire for the third time in five days.

Lusa said Tuesday's bombardment lasted around 90 minutes and was concentrated on the Bra military complex.

Meanwhile, Lusa said the Portuguese evacuation operation on Tuesday night was coordinated by the navy frigate Vasco da Gama, which headed to the Cape Verde islands.

Some Portuguese marines remained in Bissau to protect the Portuguese embassy, Lusa reported.

It said the Vasco da Gama had evacuated some Western ambassadors, but did not identify them. Only the French and Portuguese ambassadors now remained in Bissau, Lusa added.

The news agency said the 780 evacuees included Portuguese and Guinea-Bissau nationals, and that the Vasco da Gama could return to Bissau later to evacuate more people.

The latest evacuation followed some of the fiercest artillery exchanges to date in a revolt that began in the former Portuguese colony on June 7.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.
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