Guinea-Bissau parliament speaker withdraws claim to presidency

BISSAU, March 1 (Reuters) - Guinea-Bissau's parliament speaker withdrew his claim to the presidency on Sunday, citing the risk of civil war, just two days after lawmakers declared him interim president to rival the official winner of a disputed December election.

The abrupt withdrawal by Cipriano Cassama was the latest twist in the political drama that has played out since a Dec. 29 run-off that was meant to draw a line under years of institutional chaos in the West African country.

The national electoral commission has repeatedly declared former army general Umaro Cissoko Embalo the winner of the vote, and outgoing President Jose Mario Vaz handed over power to him in an inaugural ceremony on Thursday.

But the runner-up Domingos Simoes Pereira, whose PAIGC party holds the most seats in parliament, says the inauguration was illegitimate as the Supreme Court is still considering his party's request to annul the vote over alleged irregularities.

On Friday, lawmakers voted to appoint Cassama as interim president, leaving the country with two rival presidents and prime ministers.

Cassama told reporters he and his family had been threatened and that he feared the prospect of wider violence.

"I decided to take this decision to avoid confrontation between the forces on the other side and the forces that guard me, and also to avoid a ... civil war," he said.

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Guinea-Bissau has seen nine coups or attempted coups since independence from Portugal in 1974.

The Supreme Court has criticised the electoral commission for not respecting its orders to conduct a full audit of the vote. It is not clear when the court when will rule on the latest PAIGC complaint, which was filed last Wednesday.

Many senior dignitaries stayed away from Embalo's inauguration ceremony, including the parliamentary speaker, Supreme Court judges and most foreign diplomats, although senior army officers did attend.

A stand-off between Vaz and the PAIGC, his former party, led to his cycling through seven prime ministers in five years and hurt Guinea-Bissau's economy, which is already hostage to the volatile price of cashew nuts, its main export. (Reporting by Alberto Dabo; Writing by Aaron Ross Editing by Ros Russell)

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