Lagos — Barely a week after a coup in Sao Tome and Principe, that sacked the democratically elected president, the military junta ceded to international pressure yesterday and allowed President Fradiqe de Menezes to come home amidst a read carpet reception.
De Menezes, who was in Nigeria at the time of the July 16 putsch, shook hands with international mediators after stepping onto a red carpet from a jet that touched down at an airport outside the capital.
De Menezes returned shortly after mediators announced that coup leaders had agreed to restore democratic rule on the twin island state, which is hoping to join Africa's club of oil exporters by around 2007.
"An agreement has been reached, the president has signed an accord restoring legality and democratic rule," Gabon's Foreign Minister Jean Ping told reporters in Sao Tome.
Ping said Menezes, who was elected in 2001, had signed the deal after flying from Nigeria to Gabon, one of Sao Tome's closest neighbors. The officers who led the bloodless coup signed the same accord in Sao Tome.
The coup sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity by African and U.S. mediators, anxious to reverse the takeover on islands which lie in an oil-producing region of increasing strategic importance to the fuel-hungry United States. The United States believes West African crude, including Sao Tome's potentially big reserves, could help reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern supplies.
Mediators declined to detail the contents of the accord.
The leader of the coup, Major Fernando Pereira, had earlier said that parliament would reconvene and grant amnesty to the officers who led the takeover.
Nigeria has agreed a deal to jointly develop the potential reserves which straddle its maritime border with Sao Tome, and has played a leading role in trying to end the crisis.
The coup leaders, who took over Sao Tome before dawn Wednesday last week with a few volleys of bullets, initially demanded a new government to combat poverty. Pereira has since described the coup as a "wake up call" for the "criminal government."
One diplomat said that under the deal, the president and parliament would be reinstated while a committee of military and international observers negotiated fresh elections on the volcanic islands of 170,000 people.
"Since the first hour of the talks, the junta has agreed with the return of the president," Angolan Interior Minister Oswaldo van Dunen said yesterday. "One of the issues that we have to discuss are the conditions for his return."
Van Dunen didn't provide details on the conditions of the president's return.
Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano said Menezes could be home within a day.
"We have strong indications that the constitutional order will be restored and this will be a successful effort in combination with various partners," said Chissano, who heads the 53-nation African Union and was speaking in Mozambique.
Envoys started talks Sunday with the military junta, headed by artillery Maj. Fernando Pereira, with the goal of negotiating a return to civilian rule.
Participating in the talks were the renegade troops and delegations from regional power Nigeria, the Community of Portuguese-speaking countries, the Economic Community of Central African States.
The Portuguese news agency Lusa said a U.S. representative was also part of the talks in a U.N. building. Sao Tome and Principe lies in a region of growing importance to the United States and other countries as a source of oil.
On Sunday night, the junta freed seven cabinet ministers held since the day of the coup, but they were kept under house arrest.
Prime Minister Maria das Neves, the first woman to hold that post in the country, has been in hospital since the day of the coup, under military surveillance. She collapsed following her arrest by soldiers and was under observation because of concerns about high blood pressure. The United States, the United Nations, the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries and the 53-nation African Union have all demanded the restoration of constitutional order.
Also, other countries and the World Bank threatened the rebels with diplomatic isolation and cuts in vital aid. Military intervention was also mentioned as a possibility.