CONAKRY May 20 (Reuters) - Guinea took a further step to return discipline to its armed forces, a bulwark of President Lansana Conte's power, with an ultimatum on Saturday to soldiers to return goods they pillaged during pay protests this month.
Defence Minister Gen. Mamadou Bailo Diallo, whose predecessor was dismissed in a concession to the protestors, warned soldiers they would face punishment unless they returned arms, munitions, food and uniforms stolen during the protests which left at least 10 civilians dead.
"All those who have taken munitions and uniforms ... give them back," Diallo told soldiers on state television. "You have eight days to do it."
"We don't want to do any harm to anyone. You absolutely must give the stolen objects so that they are not discovered at your homes," he added.
The protests ended last weekend after Conte sacked several senior commanders and agreed to promote a raft of young officers.
Diallo has pledged not to prosecute soldiers for taking part in the protests, but has ordered them to return stolen goods. Closed-door talks are under way to determine a pay settlement.
The protests undermined the stability of the former French colony, where opposition to the reclusive, septuagenarian Conte's rule has mounted over the past year.
The army, riven by generational and ethnic differences, has shored up Conte's authoritarian rule since 1984, but analysts have questioned how long it will remain loyal in the face of vocal popular dissent.
On Friday, a lawyer for Guinea's richest man Mamadou Sylla, a former close ally of Conte, said the armed forces had recognised a debt of some $20 million to the businessman, whose Futurelec Holding supplied military equipment.
Sylla was released from custody late last year during a corruption probe thanks to the personal intervention of Conte, helping to spark opposition protests in January which caused 137 deaths and forced Conte to appoint a consensus prime minister.
"After an independent audit, the army didn't want to recognise its $30 million debt to Futurelec," Koureissy Sow told a news conference. "Now the army has acknowledged a debt of some $20 million."
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