El Tigre's grip on Guinea army helps stem chaos

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By Richard Valdmanis and Saliou Samb

* Cautious hopes as Konate fills void in junta leadership

* Soldiers lectured on discipline in barracks

* Violence of reprisals a concern

CONAKRY, Dec 11 (Reuters) - A swift crackdown on rogue elements in Guinea's military by Defence Minister Sekouba Konate has restored some order and offered cautious hopes that the West African nation will not tip further into chaos for now.

The veteran fighter, known as El Tigre for his ferocity on the battle field, stepped into a power void left in the mineral-rich nation last week after junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara was shot by his own soldiers and evacuated to Morocco for medical treatment.

Since temporarily taking the reins, Konate has directed a violent purge of rogue elements in the military -- centred on those believed to have been sympathetic to the assassination bid -- and toured army bases giving speeches on military discipline.

"In the capital Conakry, security forces are actively searching for the author and accomplices of the attempted assassination of the president," said Foreign Minister Alexandre Cece Loua during a press conference Thursday.

"It is an issue of national security."

Despite sometimes brutal tactics, Konate's swift action on the army has sparked cautious hope among residents that his efforts could bring an end to the decades of violence they have suffered at the hands of belligerent and unruly soldiers.

"He wants to restore military discipline. If he succeeds, it will greatly help this country," said Ousmane Sylla, a student. "If he fails, it will be a catastrophe for civilians."

Guinea is the world's top supplier of aluminum ore bauxite and is seen as a lynchpin of stability in a region recovering from three civil wars this decade.

After independence in 1958, the country entered 50 years of brutal rule dominated by the presidencies of revolutionary socialist Ahmed Sekou Toure -- during which tens of thousands of people disappeared or were tortured and executed -- and later strongman Lansana Conte.

Camara took power in a bloodless coup after Conte's death in December, quickly losing his initial popularity among Guineans after stepping back from a promise to opt out of general elections that had originally been set for January 2010.


The attack on Camara came as United Nations experts were wrapping up an investigation into a crackdown on anti-government protesters in a Conakry stadium on Sept. 28 in which witnesses say scores of people were raped and killed.

The failed assasination bid appeared to result from a row between soldiers over who was to blame for the stadium killings.

"As inconvenient as the timing of the latest crisis may be, it might also be an opportunity to ease Camara out by engaging (Konate), who, unlike some of his colleagues, has not been implicated in recent human rights abuses," said Peter Pham, a geopolitical analyst for the Africa Project think tank.

Konate's focus on reining in the army has also caught the eye of Western powers looking for a leader in Guinea who can bring the country toward civilian rule through elections.

"We're reaching out to try and talk to Konate," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Fitzgerald told Reuters in an interview this week. "All of (Camara's) actions were ill-concealed attempts to take over," he added.

During Konate's tours to military bases, he has been accompanied by presidential security adviser Claude Pivi, a powerful figure in the ruling junta that analysts had worried would be at odds with Konate in Camara's absence.

"They seem to have an agreed position of wanting to maintain control and discipline in the armed forces. Whether they will succeed, we will see. The intention is clearly there, which is welcome," said a Western diplomat based in Conakry.

While the early reception of Konate's tightened grip on the military has been a positive one, the hopes it has stirred among crisis-weary residents remain tentative.

"Konate has given a discourse that gives plenty of hope to the people," said Binta Bah, a Conakry resident. "But we are accustomed to things changing quickly and completely. This is why we prefer to stay cautious and just wait and see."

(Editing by David Lewis and Ralph Boulton)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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