Bissau army says chased Senegal rebels over border (GUINEA BISSEAU)

SAO DOMINGOS, Guinea Bissau (Reuters) - Guinea Bissau's army said on Saturday it had chased a group of hardline southern Senegalese separatist rebels off its territory, ending weeks of on-off fighting in the heavily mined border region.


The army has been battling since the middle of last month to dislodge fighters loyal to Salif Sadio, a separatist leader from Senegal's southern Casamance region, who crossed into Guinea Bissau after coming under attack from rival factions.

"The territory of Guinea Bissau has been completely cleared of the rebel faction loyal to Salif Sadio," Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Ndiaye, who has been leading the Guinea Bissau army offensive against the rebels, told Reuters.

"As of today, the battle is over," he said, while soldiers sang from on top of tanks and trucks behind him as they returned to their barracks in the border town of Sao Domingos.

The fighting, during which artillery and infantry attacks by Guinea Bissau's army have repeatedly been hampered by landmines laid by Sadio's forces, has been the worst in the region for more than a decade.

Aid agencies have said the latest clashes have forced more than 5,500 people from their homes, triggering calls for a ceasefire from U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland last month.

Ndiaye said the army had liberated three border villages -- Nianbalang, Bofa and Djacumuno -- held by the rebels late on Friday but gave no word on casualties. Other rebel camps had been found empty when soldiers raided them, he said.

A security source in Senegal's Casamance region, who asked not to be named, said Sadio and around 50 of his fighters had crossed into Senegal and had been spotted near a rebel base called Kadialouck, close to the town of Bignona.

"He has crossed the Casamance river," the source said.

Sadio leads a hardline faction of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), which took up arms against Senegal's government in 1982, accusing it of neglecting Casamance.

The fertile region, rich in cashew nuts, fisheries, rice fields and palm-oil plantations, is split from the rest of Senegal by tiny, wedged-shaped Gambia. It is also one of West Africa's most popular tourist resorts with Europeans.

The violence has generally been low-level, peaking in the 1990s, but a string of peace moves has failed to rein in the rebel group, with Sadio refusing to join rival factions who favour negotiations with the government.

Von: Sun Apr 23, 2006, By Alberto Dabo, Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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