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Army In Control After Bloodless Christmas Eve Coup

December 26, 1990

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) _ The Suriname army chief who led a bloodless Christmas Eve coup pledged Tuesday to relinquish power to an elected government within 100 days and denied an ousted dictator was behind the coup.

″The army is not bent on having and keeping power,″ Cmdr. Ivan Graanoogst said on state-run radio, a day after he and other officers overthrew the elected, 3-year-old government of President Ramsewak Shankar.

The military removed Shankar and his Cabinet while they met at the presidential palace Monday evening, as many Surinamese were attending Christmas Mass.

The coup will ″give the Surinamese society a chance to choose a better government that can give content to a credible democratic structure,″ Graanoogst said in an interview with Dutch television.

No one was injured or arrested in the coup and the army is allowing the ousted president and his ministers complete freedom of movement, Shankar said in an interview from his home.

″I’m free to go wherever I want to,″ he said.

The coup was seen as the culmination of a conflict between Shankar and Desi Bouterse, dictator of Suriname from 1980 until 1988. Shankar took office that year after defeating a candidate backed by Bouterse. Despite the defeat of his candidate, Bouterse stayed on as army chief.

The Dutch and U.S. governments denounced the coup. The Dutch, the former colonial rulers of the nation of 400,000 people, said they were cutting aid to the government.

Normal holiday activity resumed in the capital, Paramaribo, on Tuesday. People flocked to churches for Christmas services and there was no unusual military presence on the streets.

International telephone service was restored Tuesday afternoon after being cut Monday night shortly after the coup.

″Everything is completely normal, as if nothing has happened,″ said a Surinamese journalist, who asked not to be further identified for security reasons. ″Life in the country goes on.″

Graanoogst said Paramaribo’s international airport and two smaller airports remained open and there would be no curfew because ″there is no danger whatsoever.″

The coup occurred at 11 p.m. Monday, as Shankar and his Cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss Bouterse’s announcement earlier in the day that he was resigning because of differences with Shankar, whom he called a ″joker.″

A high-ranking government source said the military told Shankar it was assuming control and asked the president and his Cabinet to leave the presidential palace. They decided to do so to avoid bloodshed, the source said.

Later Monday night, Graanoogst appeared in uniform on state television to announce the coup.

The latest conflict between Shankar and Bouterse had been brewing since Saturday, when Bouterse returned from a trip to Ghana and Switzerland. On three separate occasions this month, Dutch officials refused to give Bouterse a visa or allow him to speak to reporters after he landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

Dutch officials cited security reasons; Bouterse claimed Shankar collaborated with the Dutch to humiliate him.

″If I had been in Shankar’s place I would have turned Schiphol upside down to protect the dignity of the commander of my country’s national army,″ Bouterse said.

The two men also have been at odds over the government’s attempt to negotiate a settlement of an armed revolt led by Bouterse’s former bodyguard, Ronny Brunswijk, on behalf of the nation’s Bush Negro minority. The jungle war began in July 1986.

Suriname is a jungle-laden, Georgia-sized country with few roads and poor communications. Its population is a multiracial mosaic of Indian and Javanese immigrants, Bush Negroes and indigenous tribes.

Bouterse opposes a tentative peace agreement reached with Brunswijk on the grounds that it failed to disarm the insurgents and left them in control of the interior of Suriname.

Also, some Surinamese have been urging the government to bring charges against Bouterse and others for the 1982 massacre of 15 opposition politicians. The government had never said whether it plans to do anything about the atrocity.

Because of Bouterse’s resignation Monday, Graanoogst, head of the nation’s military police and one of four military commanders, acted as nominal head of the new military regime.

Bouterse was believed to be the mastermind of the coup. But Graanoogst claimed ″the former commander-in-chief, Desi Bouterse, was not at all involved.″

″Bouterse is at home, and like a real Surinamese, he offers his input when necessary,″ said Graanoogst, who went on to describe Bouterse as a ″man who has shown in the last ten years that his heart is in the right place.″

Graanoogst promised to set up an interim cabinet that would organize free national elections within 100 days, but refused to speculate on who would be appointed as the country’s leader in the meantime.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Sondra McCarty said it did not appear U.S. citizens in Suriname were in danger. The department called for the restoration of the civilian government.

″We condemn this violation of constitutional order in Suriname...We call on the Surinamese military to restore power immediately to the democratically elected authorities of that country,″ Ms. McCarty said.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry said it ″sharply condemns the undemocratic seizure of power by the Surinamese Army.″

Bouterse led a military coup in 1980 that toppled an elected government. He allowed elections in November 1987 in which Shankar’s three-party coalition, the Front for Democracy and Development, easily defeated the military-backed National Democracy Party.

When Shankar began his scheduled five-year term on Jan. 25, 1988, Bouterse continued to wield considerable influence as the country’s military chief.

Suriname was among the most prosperous countries in South America before the 1980 coup.

Since then its economy has declined, due to a cut in Dutch aid, a drop in the price of bauxite, the main export, and the guerrilla warfare that curtailed bauxite and aluminum production.

When Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, the Dutch government pledged a developmental aid package amounting to $100 million annually over 15 years.

The aid was suspended after the 1982 massacre of the politicians, whom Bouterse claimed were planning a coup.

A relatively small amount of humanitarian aid was resumed recently to Shankar’s government.

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