Guinea: Government on the brink as soldiers rampage

CONAKRY, 11 May 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds of marauding soldiers fired guns in the air in the streets of Conakry and other towns around the country on Friday, further threatening the ability of Guinea's beleaguered president Lansana Conte to govern.

Banks, schools, markets and shops all closed at around 11.30am as news spread that heavily armed soldiers were marching into town, after talks between senior military officials and soldiers at a military base near the airport collapsed.

"We want the leaders who stole our wages and betrayed us to step down," one of the soldiers marching in central Conakry close to the presidential palace, told IRIN on Friday afternoon.

In the morning IRIN also saw presidential guards, distinguished by their red berets, in the centre of the city. They were shooting in the air in what appeared to be an attempt to scare off the mutinous soldiers, but the presidential guards were outnumbered and eventually fled.

Also in the city centre, witnesses said uniformed soldiers shot at an unmarked car carrying an army officer, who was then dragged out of his vehicle.

The army's agenda is unclear and it is currently "very disorganised," Elisabeth Cote, who represents the Washington-based election support NGO IFES in Guinea told IRIN. "It seems likely the army doesn't want [President] Conte anymore," she said ."[If so] it doesn't take much organising and then one considers it a coup."

The disgruntled soldiers, who were demanding money and promotions, began shooting last week inside barracks around the country. The government showed signs that it would meet some of their demands on Thursday, handing out salary arrears and raising the rank of every soldiers who had served longer than four years by one grade.

But the soldier IRIN talked to said that for him and his colleagues to return to their barracks, President Conte, himself a former army officer and still head of the armed forces, would have to do more. The soldier listed the names of all the senior military and ministry of defence officials that the president would have to fire.

Trade unions had led strikes in January and February which paralysed the country for several weeks as tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding President Conte's resignation attacked administrative buildings and clashed with the army and presidential guard.

The army killed at least 137 people as it enforced martial law for almost two weeks until Conte compromised with the unions and devolved some of his powers to a consensus prime minister, former diplomat Lansana Kouyate.

On Friday, civil society groups said they would hold an emergency meeting to discuss the army mutiny but the president of the civil society organisations Ben Sekou Sylla had already made it clear to IRIN that he would not support the soldiers.

"We do not support any movement that destabilizes the current process towards democracy," he said. "The army is part of civil society but if they have a problem they should resolved it through dialogue."

The soldiers appeared to have coordinated the latest mutiny in barracks across the country starting on Thursday night at around 10pm by shooting in the air in such towns as Faranah, Guéckédou, Labe, Kankan, Kissidougou and Kindia. Intense shooting continued through most of the night and into the morning.

In Kindia two civilians were killed by soldiers who had been looting shops in the main market. One of the dead was a child who had been sitting in front of his house.

In the centre of Conakry where many civilians work, there were few taxis and buses on Friday leaving many to walk home. "We hear all this shooting and it is not our problem," said Fode Soumah a trader walking briskly to try to get to safety. "But we are all afraid for our lives."