Guinea-Bissau – heavy gunfire heard in capital after national guard frees detained ministers

Heavy gunfire was reported in Guinea-Bissau’s capital on Friday morning hours after some National Guard soldiers went to free a detained minister and a senior state official.


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Members of the National Guard took the officials before seeking refuge in barracks south of the capital.

Special forces then intervened after attempts to negotiate failed, resulting in an exchange of gunfire.

Calm is said to have been restored later.

The leader of the group of soldiers who were trying to free the two men is now being held by the army and the “situation is completely under control”, the AFP news agency quotes an army spokesman as saying.

Finance Minister Souleiman Seidi and António Monteiro, the secretary of state for the treasury, had been detained amid investigations into the alleged irregular withdrawal of $10m (£8m) of state funds.

They were questioned on Thursday afternoon by an anti-corruption inquiry to clarify the payments to 11 companies.

In a parliamentary session on Monday, the leader of the country’s main opposition party alleged that the owners of the companies were close to leaders of the country’s governing coalition.

Mr Seidi defended the payments as legal.

On Thursday after the questioning, Mr Seidi and Mr Monteiro were arrested and detained so as not to jeopardise the investigations, local media said.

National Guard soldiers later in the evening invaded the police cells, located near Bandim market, “with AK-47 weapons and bazookas” and extricated the detained officials, the privately owned O Democrata news outlet reported.

It said the National Guard took them to an unknown location.

President Umaro Sissoco Embalo is currently out of the country, attending the UN’s COP28 climate conference in Dubai.

On Friday morning, regional stabilisation forces deployed by the regional West African bloc Ecowas were seen patrolling the streets, the AFP news agency reported.

Guinea-Bissau has suffered a series of coups and attempted coups since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974.

In February last year, the president said he survived a coup attempt after being under heavy gunfire for five hours – in an incident in which 11 people died.

Without providing details, he said the attack was linked to drug trafficking in the country.

Some however doubted the official version of the events, amid questions including who was really behind the attempt, how many people were involved and who was in command.

There have been no full answers to these questions.

At the beginning of the month, it looked like Guinea-Bissau was about to fall victim to what has been called West Africa’s coup epidemic, but some are now doubting the official version of events.

Having seen more than a dozen coups or attempted coups since independence in 1974, and being used as a conduit for drug trafficking, news from Guinea-Bissau that people were trying to unseat President Umaro Sissoco Embaló fitted a pattern of instability.

Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso had all recently succumbed to military takeovers and on 1 February armed men shot their way into the government palace in the capital, Bissau.

The 49-year-old president and the cabinet were inside the compound having a meeting.

But after five hours of fighting, which left 11 dead, Mr Embaló said it was all over and linked what he called an attempted takeover to the illegal drugs trade.

Speaking again this week he named three men who had previously been arrested by the US for trying to ship cocaine as being behind the coup attempt.

One of them was the former head of the navy, José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, and the president said that he had seen the other two himself as he was trying to hide from the attackers.

The three have since been arrested and have not commented on the accusations.

Talking confidently and in a relaxed tone, the president told journalists on Thursday that he survived an attempt on his life because of his faith in God.

The possibility that narcotics had something to do with the attack rests on Guinea-Bissau’s reputation that it has become a transit point for drugs coming from Latin America on their way to Europe.

The UN and the US have in the past described the country of two million people as a “narco-state” where politicians were funded by criminals and networks within the government were established to protect the illegal trade.

In 2019, Mr Embaló won disputed elections and promised that there would be a “zero-tolerance” attitude to drug trafficking.

His backers say he has created conditions for the police to be able to fight against the trade but it is not clear if it has made any difference.

“Some of those previously involved in it seem to have made a comeback,” says Lucia Bird of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

‘We are at peace’

But beyond the walls of the government buildings, questions are being raised.

In a barbershop in the centre of Bissau, one customer told me with certainty that he does not believe there was a coup attempt.

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