March 19, 2006

Guinea Bissau troops pound Senegal rebels on border

By Alberto Dabo

SAO DOMINGOS, Guinea Bissau (Reuters) - Guinea Bissau
troops used rockets and mortars at the weekend to bombard
southern Senegal separatist rebels in a border zone, killing at
least one of the rebels, an officer said on Sunday.

Four Guinea Bissau troops were also injured in the clashes,
which have raged for several days around Sao Domingos town near
the frontier with Senegal's southern Casamance region, where
rebels have fought a low-intensity separatist war for years.

Several soldiers, rebels and civilians have died in the
fighting since last Tuesday and hundreds of civilians have fled
the zone, more than 450 taking refuge in Ziguinchor, the main
town in Senegal's Casamance region.

A commander in the Guinea Bissua army, Antonio Ndiaye, told
Reuters his soldiers were trying to clear a border stronghold
belonging to hardline Casamance separatist chief Salif Sadio,
who has refused to negotiate peace with Senegal's government.

They were using Soviet-made Katyusha multiple rocket
launchers, popularly known as "Stalin Organs," and mortars to
pound the Senegalese rebels, whom Ndiaye said had attacked an
army position inside Guinea Bissau earlier on Sunday.

"There has been fighting since yesterday in the Baraca
Mandioca zone where Sadio's rebels are holed up," Ndiaye said.

He blamed the rebels for laying a land mine which exploded
under a minibus taxi outside of Sao Domingos on Thursday,
killing 12 people. At least three houses in the town had also
been set on fire by the fighting between troops and rebels.

Sadio's fighters, who had come under attack inside Senegal
since Tuesday from rival factions of the Movement of Democratic
Forces of Casamance (MFDC), had moved across the border west of
Sao Domingos, cutting the road to Varela, Ndiaye said.

He addded they had been assaulting and robbing traders
inside Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony.

Guinea Bissau's Defense Minister Helder Proenca on Thursday
explained the army offensive against Sadio's group by saying
his country would not allow its territory to be used to
destabilize its neighbor Senegal.

The border area is heavily mined after years of unrest in
both Guinea Bissau and Senegal's Casamance, where the
separatist rebels have fought a 24-year insurgency.

Armed dissidents from both countries have in the past moved
backwards and forwards over the border area, where local tribal
and political loyalties are often more influential than modern
national borders originally imposed by European colonists.

The MFDC took up arms against Senegal's central government
in 1982, accusing it of neglecting Casamance, which is
separated from the rest of the former French colony by tiny,
wedge-shaped Gambia, previously a British colony.

The rebellion has simmered since, reaching its peak in the
1990s. Hundreds of people have been killed and scores maimed by
landmines that litter the countryside.

(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar)