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Officers held as `coup is foiled'

Lagos - A plot to overthrow Nigeria's military ruler General Sani Abacha has been uncovered and at least 150 officers have been held for questioning, according to reports in Nigerian magazines yesterday.

The most senior of those arrested was Brigadier-General Lawan Gwadabe, commanding 23 Armoured Brigade in Yola, northern Nigeria. They were still hatching the plot when it was foiled," the News magazine reported. "The pattern of arrest has sent shock and panic across major institutions like the Command and Staff College in Jaji, the 1 Mechanised Division at Kaduna and the Nigerian Defence Academy also in Kaduna," it added.

The reports followed days of rumours in Nigeria of an aborted coup. This Day, an independent weekly newspaper, said scores of officers were arrested for spreading rumours that General Abacha's 15-month-old administration was too slow, citing failure to appoint ministers since 8 February when he dissolved his cabinet.

Last week, defence headquarters spokesman Brigadier General Fred Chijuka told reporters that some officers were being questioned for "rumour mongering", which Tell magazine called "a concealed term for coup d'tat." General Chijuka was not immediately available yesterday to comment.

But in an interview with News published yesterday, he said: "I don't know if there was an abortive coup but some people were spreading rumours capable of causing disaffection among the the armed forces."

General Gwadabe, 46, is a former state governor.

He became staff officer to General Abacha when he seized power in November, 1993 but was posted to Gambia to head its army. He returned home last July when young officers seized power.

He is known to be close to General Ibrahim Babangida, the former military president now retired, who plunged Nigeria into crisis over his annulment of the 1993 presidential election believed to have been won by business tycoon Chief Moshood Abiola.