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Heavy gunfire has been heard in the capital of Guinea-Bissau near the seat of the government, according to media reports.

Armed men surrounded the government palace on Tuesday, where President Umaro Sissoco Embalo and Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam were believed to have gone to attend a cabinet meeting.

The state broadcaster reported that the shooting has damaged the government palace, which is located close to the airport, and that “invaders” are holding government officials.

Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Dakar in neighbouring Senegal, said it was unclear whether the gunfire was the presidential guards trying to protect the president, or if there was an attack on the government palace.

The whereabouts of the president and the prime minister remain unknown at this time, he said.

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 AFP news agency.

If confirmed, this would be the second coup in West Africa in as many weeks after the military seized power in Burkina Faso last week.

Meanwhile, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS condemned what it described as an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau, which has a history of political instability.

“ECOWAS is following with great concern the evolution of the situation in Guinea-Bissau…where military gunfire is taking place around the government palace,” the organisation said.

“ECOWAS condemns this attempted coup and holds the military responsible for the safety of President Umaro Sissoco Embalo and members of his government.”

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.

“He calls on the military to return to their barracks without delay and to protect the physical safety of President Umaro Sissoco Embalo and members of his government and to immediately free those of them who are in detention,” it said.

The West African nation has suffered four military putsches since gaining independence in 1974, most recently in 2012.

‘Deeply concerned’

UN chief Antonio Guterres also called for an immediate end to the fighting.

“The Secretary-General is deeply concerned with the news of heavy fighting in Bissau,” said a statement on Tuesday.

Guterres called “for an immediate end to the fighting and for full respect of the country’s democratic institutions”.

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, comprised of 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.

Since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau has experienced four coup d’etats and more than a dozen attempted coups.

According to Haque, grievances amongst the military “have been brewing for a long time in Guinea- Bissau”. There is a lot of “resentment” from the military towards the government, he said.

The small nation of about 1.5 million people has long been beset by corruption and drug trafficking. In the 2000s, it became known as a transit point for cocaine between Latin America and Europe as traffickers profited from corruption and weak law enforcement.

Three countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso – have experienced military takeovers in less than 18 months.

“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,” he added.

The region’s mounting instability is due to be discussed on Thursday at a summit of the ECOWAS.

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.

This content was originally published here.

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