Guinea

Guinea soldiers shoot in air in streets of Conakry

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By Saliou Samb

CONAKRY, May 11 (Reuters) - Six people were killed as mutinous soldiers stormed through Guinean cities firing into the air in a protest over pay on Friday, the government said.

Passers-by fled in panic, shops and banks closed their shutters, and workers and motorists rushed to get home as heavily-armed protesting soldiers marched to a camp in the centre of the sprawling coastal capital Conakry.

There were similar scenes in other cities and the government said looting had taken place.

Calm later returned after Prime Minister Lansana Kouyate asked the uniformed protesters to return to their barracks, promising to meet them to hear their pay grievances and their demands for the dismissal of senior commanders.

But the incident, following widespread protests in garrisons across the West African state a week ago, underlined the simmering instability of the world's largest bauxite exporter, which was rocked by violent strikes in January and February.

"We are here in the camp to demand our money. They promised it and they haven't delivered," one junior officer said at the central Samory barracks after he and other protesters marched there from the larger Alpha Yaya Diallo camp.

During their demonstrations the soldiers, some carrying grenade-launchers, fired rifle volleys into the air.

The government said the military protests killed one person in Conakry, three in the bauxite mining town of Kindia and two at Geckedou near the southeastern border with Liberia.

Most were believed to have been killed by stray bullets. In similar shooting protests last week, bullets fired out of the country's barracks have rained down from the sky onto the roofs of terrified residents' homes.

The army rioters, mostly rank and file and junior officers, have ransacked weapons and food stores and looted the private homes of several senior officers.

Guinea's armed forces received a hefty pay increase in March, shortly after they had helped to quell the strikes and riots against President Lansana Conte, a reclusive diabetic in his 70s whom union leaders say is unfit to rule.

At least 137 people were killed in the violence earlier this year, mostly demonstrators shot by soldiers and police.

APPEAL FOR CALM

In a statement on Friday, the government said it had already acceded to the soldiers' demands for pay grades to be increased and pensions brought in line with increases.

The increases were costing the state budget an additional 1.7 billion CFA francs ($3.49 million) a month, it said.

"The Head of State has lent an attentive ear to the different requests ... in his name, the Prime Minister asks the soldiers to stay calm and return to their barracks," the government statement added.

Diplomats said the junior ranks of the Guinean armed forces, which have propped up Conte's autocratic rule since he seized power in a 1984 coup, did not appear to want to oust him.

"I do not think the troops want a coup d'etat, they just want to see the back of people they feel have been stealing their salaries over the past decade," one foreign diplomat said.

"The troops want four of the generals sacked and only Conte can do that," he added.

Soldiers used heavy weaponry to bombard the presidential palace during a 1996 mutiny to demand higher wages.

Diplomats question how long the army, riven by generational and ethnic divisions, will remain loyal in the face of increasingly vocal opposition to Conte.

(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Dakar)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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