Senegal launched a huge military operation to track down armed separatist rebels in the West African country's southern Casamance region on 21 June. The operation in the Bignona department (northwest of the Casmance capital Ziguinchor) was a response to "recent acts by armed rebel groups that have threatened security". All residents were told to stay indoors while the army hunted down the rebels, but by 25 June Gambian radio reported that over 1,000 Casamance region citizens fleeing army operations had sought refugee in Gambia. The Bignona district is largely cut off from the rest of Senegal by the Gambia and its river.
Casamance has been beset for 20 years by a separatist rebellion led by the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces (MFDC), who degenerated into a group of drug-smuggling extortionists. In addition to raising 70% of their funds from Cannibis smuggling, the MFDC will surround villages with antipersonnel mines and demand tribute in cash and livestock to remove them. The MFDC has disrupted Senegal's lucrative tourist trade (primarily from France) to Casamance's beaches.
In October 2001, MFDC leaders warned that the group was out of cash and claimed that a resurgence in violence in Casamance was driven by hunger among MFDC fighters. The Senegalese government describes the rebels as gangs who have recently been terrorizing civilians and carrying out raids, endangering people and property. On 29 April, suspected rebels killed seven people and wounded four near Bignona's Diouloulou village.
The MFDC movement has effected the political situation in Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. Guinea-Bissau (a former Portuguese colony of 1.3 million people) has been troubled with repeated unrest since an army mutiny in 1998. Gambia (a former British colony with fewer than 1.5 million people) is separated from Guinea-Bissau by the former French colony of Senegal. These colonial-era borders bisected traditional tribal areas, creating the climate for a political witch's brew.
In early May 2002, an operation similar to June's, netted the Senegalese military 33 MFDC suspects. On 8 May, Gambian Army Chief of Staff Colonel Baboucarr Jatta revealed that the Gambian Army was monitoring the situation in the border villages of Dasilami and Kartong, where residents were caught in the latest flare-up between MFDC separatist rebels and the Senegalese Army. Jatta claimed that the presence of Gambian troops on the border was just to monitor the situation, but on 22 May about two dozen coup plotters were arrested in the capital Bissau. It wasn't until 11 June that Guinea-Bissau's president Kumba Yalla warned Gambia over its alleged role in coup plots, as the suspects had been trained in that neighboring country. The Gambian government described the allegations as "untrue and unfounded", while a Guinea-Bissaun threat to launch a punitive invasion was met with Gambian derision.
One alleged coup plotter, Guinea-Bissua reserve army officer Fode Conte, confessed that he feared that he and fellow Mandingo ethnic group members would be purged from the army, so they planned to preemptively kill President Yalla and other senior military officers (who are from the rival Balanta ethnic group).
Yala also accused the MFDC of being involved in the alleged coup attempt. On 18 June, eight MFDC rebels detained in Bissau following that incident were handed over to Senegal through the United Nations. MFDC spokesman Alexandre Djiba, who was arrested in Guinea Bissau on 26 April, had already been released on 29 May and repatriated to Senegal. - Adam Geibel
For additional background on the MFDC, see http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/mfdc.htm
For one perspective on the region, see AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S "Senegal: Climate of terror in Casamance" at http://www.web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/index/AFR490011998