By Saliou Samb
CONAKRY, May 4 (Reuters) - Soldiers in Guinea demanding higher wages fired volleys of shots in the air, raining bullets onto the homes of terrified residents in several garrison cities as an army pay protest escalated, witnesses said on Friday.
The protests, which began late on Wednesday in major barracks in the capital Conakry and in Kindia, spread to garrisons in at least three other cities -- Labe, Kankan and N'Zerekore -- in the world's leading exporter of bauxite.
"People are traumatised. The soldiers even left their barracks to shoot into the air. Some residents have had bullets falling onto their roofs," one resident in the southeastern town of N'Zerekore told Reuters by telephone.
One private Website, Guineenews, reported 30 people hurt by falling bullets, but there was no immediate official toll.
The protests by the West African nation's fractious military pose a challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Lansana Kouyate's new government, which was formed in the wake of violent strikes that rocked the country in January and February.
Officials say 137 people were killed in the violence earlier this year, when soldiers and police quelled strike protests. The strikes were led by union leaders who said President Lansana Conte, a reclusive diabetic in his 70s, was unfit to rule.
Conte has relied on the armed forces to bolster his autocratic rule since seizing power in a 1984 coup.
The protesting soldiers are demanding a permanent increase in pay grades and back-payment of a March salary hike.
Military commanders met government leaders on Thursday to discuss ways of resolving the dispute and further meetings were expected on Friday.
"There is hope that a solution can be found," said one senior officer, who asked not to be named.
Inhabitants of several garrison towns spent a sleepless night as nearby barracks resounded to the sound of automatic weapons being fired into the air.
"There was firing all night, we couldn't sleep. This morning, soldiers who are billeted in neighbourhoods continued firing. I've picked up bullets from the street," said a resident of Kankan in eastern Guinea. He declined to be named.
On Wednesday night, the army protesters went on the rampage at the Keme Bourema barracks of the bauxite mining town of Kindia, 135 km (84 miles) northeast of Conakry.
They fired into the air, ransacked weapons and food stores, and looted the Kindia home of armed forces chief of staff Kerfala Camara.
The main Alpha Yaya Diallo barracks in Conakry has also seen two nights of shooting.
Guinean security forces have been sharply criticised by human rights groups which accuse them of murdering, robbing and raping civilians during the military crackdown earlier this year that quelled the strike protests in the former French colony.
In a 1996 mutiny, soldiers used heavy weaponry to bombard the presidential palace to demand higher wages.
Diplomats question how long the army, riven by generational and ethnic divisions, will remain loyal to Conte.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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