Senegalese authorities failed to attend a border meeting yesterday aimed at easing tensions with neighbour Guinea-Bissau that have led to a military build-up in the region, officials said.
Fearing an outbreak of violence, dozens of Bissau-Guinean civilians stacked belongings on their heads and abandoned their homes in the border town of Sao Domingos, underscoring tensions on the border between two nations with a history of disputes.
The long list of rows has been caused by disagreements over ownership of potential oil reserves and Dakar’s accusations that previous administrations in Bissau harboured southern Senegalese separatist rebels during a 27-year conflict.
“Given the Senegalese side has not turned up, we are forced to delay until another day this meeting between the authorities from the two countries,” Pedro Embalo, governor of the Bissau-Guinean province of Gabu, told reporters.
No reason was given for the Senegalese no-show but Embalo said the two sides had rescheduled the meeting for tomorrow.
Bissau-Guinean sources said earlier this week that the former Portuguese colony had sent several battalions of soldiers to its northern border after suspected separatists launched a number of attacks on the Senegalese army and other targets.
Both West African nations have dismissed local media reports of a border dispute and Senegal says it has not deployed any other troops to the region.
But a Reuters witness saw dozens of Bissau-Guinean civilians leaving their homes on Wednesday and cram into vehicles heading south, away from the border.
“I can’t stay where there are lots of weapons. I am leaving with the children,” Sao Domingos resident Satou Seydi said, balancing a suitcase full of her belongings on her head.
“I will come back when it is calm,” she added.
Violence in the southern Senegalese tourist region has flared in recent months, despite numerous deals aimed at securing peace after nearly 30 years of low-level insurgency.
Although no longer accused of backing the Senegalese rebels, Guinea-Bissau’s military is weak and plagued with corruption, which analysts say allows the rebels to dart back and forth across the border.
Border disputes between the two countries have also been fuelled by hopes of large, offshore oil finds that are yet to be realised.