Guinea-Bissau’s president says he has survived an attempted coup after assailants armed with machine guns and AK-47s attacked the government palace for hours while the president and prime minister were inside.
The foiled attack on Tuesday in the capital of the unstable West African country came only about two weeks after the military overthrew the democratically elected leader of Burkina Faso, underscoring fears that a recent spate of coups is inspiring others in the region.
President Umaro Sissoco Embalo addressed reporters late on Tuesday, saying the “attack on democracy” had come during a government meeting at the building.
“Our republican defence and security forces were able to stop this evil,” Embalo said, adding that the gunfire went on for five hours and that many people had been killed or injured.
“It wasn’t just a coup. It was an attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and all the cabinet,” he said.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the assault, though the president said it “also has to do with our fight against narco-trafficking”.
Guinea-Bissau became known as a transit point for cocaine between Latin America and Europe in the 2000s as traffickers profited from corruption and weak law enforcement.
Embalo said some of the people involved had been arrested but he did not know how many.
The state broadcaster reported that the shooting damaged the government palace.
People were seen fleeing the area, the local markets were closed and banks shut their doors, while military vehicles laden with troops drove through the streets, according to the AFP news agency.
The 15-nation West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, already grappling with three coups in member states over the last 18 months, called Tuesday’s violence a coup attempt and said it was following the situation in Bissau “with great concern”.
Three countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso – have experienced military takeovers in less than 18 months.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by what was going on in the capital Bissau.
Guterres called “for an immediate end to the fighting and for full respect of the country’s democratic institutions”.
For its part, the African Union said it was very concerned about what it also described as an attempted coup and called on the military to free detained government members.
“The President of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, is following with grave concern the situation in Guinea-Bissau, consisting of an attempted coup against the country’s government,” the AU said in a statement.
Portugal’s Foreign Ministry said in a tweet that it strongly condemned the attack in its former colony.
The West African nation has suffered four military coups since gaining independence in 1974, most recently in 2012.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Dakar in neighbouring Senegal, said grievances amongst the military “have been brewing for a long time in Guinea- Bissau”.
“If this is a coup, this is a big blow to the region,” Haque said.
“It seems that what has happened in Mali … and its apparent success, has informed other militaries in the region that they can take up power.”
Embalo, a 49-year-old reserve brigadier general and former prime minister, took office in February 2020 after winning a second-round runoff election that followed four years of political infighting under the country’s semi-presidential system.
He was a candidate for a party called Madem, comprising rebels from the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) which had led Guinea-Bissau to independence.
His chief opponent, PAIGC candidate Domingos Simoes Pereira, bitterly contested the result but Embalo declared himself president without waiting for the outcome of his petition to the Supreme Court.
The cabinet meeting on Tuesday was being held to prepare for a forthcoming ECOWAS summit in response to last week’s military takeover in Burkina Faso.
“It looks increasingly hard to argue against the idea of coup contagion,” Eric Humphrey-Smith, an analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told Reuters news agency.
“When added to successful coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Chad in the past year, there is no doubt that West African leaders are nervously looking over their shoulders.”
Emmanuel Kwesi Aning of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Centre told Al Jazeera that Guinea-Bissau has been a “fragile state” for decades.
“In the last 10 years … the benefits of democracy have been trickled down, corruption is still endemic, unemployment is problematic, and quality of education dubious,” Aning said.
The country’s population has also increased dramatically over the years, leaving many youths unemployed and uneducated, Aning added.
All of this has been “building up frustration … Particularly where we have leadership that doesn’t speak the language and behave in a way that reflects the aspirations and hopes [of the youth],” he said.