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Guinean president survives assassination attempt

Assault on home challenges stability of country’s first democratically elected government

- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CONAKRY, Guinea — Guinea's president narrowly survived an assassination attempt this week when gunmen surrounded his home overnight and pounded his bedroom with rockets, throwing into doubt the stability of the country's first democratically elected government in a part of the world that long has been ruled by the gun.

President Alpha Conde survived because he was sleeping in a different room when the shooting erupted outside his residence at about 3 a.m.

Rocket-propelled grenades landed inside the compound and killed one of his bodyguards, said Francois Louceny Fall, Mr. Conde's chief of staff. The bedroom was ripped apart, Mr. Conde said in an interview with French radio RFI.

The 73-year-old president later addressed the nation on state radio, saying his security detail had "heroically fought, starting at 3:10 a.m. until reinforcements arrived."

He urged the public to remain calm and said the attack would not derail the promises he made to voters seven months ago when he became the first democratically elected leader in Guinea's 52-year history.

"If your hand is in the hand of God. Nothing can happen to you. ... Our enemies can try everything, but they will not stop the march of the Guinean people," Mr. Conde said in his address. "Guinea is one country. We are united, for we cannot grow if we are not united. Let us not accept to be divided."

Just hours later, shooting broke out again near his home, and residents said they saw the presidential guards take fighting positions.

Mr. Conde was inside meeting with the French ambassador, who fell to the floor to avoid the bullets, the president said on RFI.

A bodyguard, who was close to the last two military leaders and who goes by the nickname "De Gaulle," was arrested attempting to pierce the police cordon around the house, Mr. Fall told the Associated Press by telephone.

Soldiers fanned out across the capital city, located on a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean on Africa's western coast. They tied ropes between trees at intersections, bringing traffic to a standstill as each car was stopped and searched.

Military helicopters circled overhead. Shops and schools were closed.

The international community invested tens of millions of dollars to ensure last year's transparent vote, and a coup would be a major setback for the region, analysts said.

"It just shows the fragility of the country," said Guinea-based Elizabeth Cote of the International Foundation for Election Systems.

In Paris, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe spoke by telephone Tuesday with Mr. Conde to express support for the former French colony.

"The return of democracy to Guinea ... constitutes an example for Africa," Mr. Juppe said.

Until last year, Guinea was one of the continent's failed states, a country with an abominable human rights record. Its destiny was determined not by the ballot box but by the mood of officers inside the capital's barracks.

Ahmed Sekou Toure took power after independence from France in 1958 and ruled by violently oppressing his opposition until his death in 1984.

Col. Lantana Conte grabbed the presidency in a coup after Mr. Toure's death and ruled until he died in 2008. Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara followed Col. Conte through another coup and ruled at the head of a military junta.

Capt. Camara was known for his frightening temper and his taste for televised interrogations of opponents. He was deposed a year later.

During Capt. Camara's rule, his men massacred pro-democracy protesters, whose bodies were buried in mass graves, according to Human Rights Watch. Women who had dared question military rule were gang-raped by soldiers who silenced their cries by stuffing their red berets in their victims' mouths.

Foreign observers were surprised when Sekouba Konate — the vice president and defense minister who seized power in the final month of 2009 — agreed to hand over the country to civilians in the elections that occurred last November.

The election should have been a proud moment, but the vote was marred by days of ethnic violence pitting Mr. Conde's supporters — who are Malinke like him — against the Peul, the ethnic group of the defeated candidate.

Frustration has grown since then because Mr. Conde has failed to create an inclusive government, instead stacking it with members of his ethnicity. He also has failed to deal with the country's grinding poverty, despite Guinea's considerable mineral wealth that includes the world's largest supply of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum.

Country-watchers long predicted that a democratic election would be only a first step in ending the army's stranglehold on Guinea.

The bigger question is how the new leader relates to the soldiers who once had total control of state affairs but now have had their privileges diminished by the election of a civilian president.

Yale University anthropologist Michael McGovern, a specialist on Guinea, said the country's army quadrupled in size during the final years of the military regime.

The army went from 10,000 men to more than 40,000, as each strongman launched recruitment drives aimed at filling the ranks with their ethnic kin. The bloated army has become not only a security risk but also an enormous drain on the budget.

Mr. Conde told RFI on Tuesday that before he took office some soldiers had a salary of $30,000 to $45,000 in a country where 40 percent of the country of 10.6 million live on about $300 a year.

"Obviously there are some people that will not be happy, but we can't kill our country," he told the radio station, indicating that his attempts to rein in the military could be behind the thwarted coup attempt.

Meanwhile the ethnic tensions that were revealed by the vote are only getting worse. Among the first people to be fired when Mr. Conde won the election was the head of the army, Gen. Nouhou Thiam — a Peul.

On Tuesday, a military official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed that Gen. Thiam was arrested alongside De Gaulle, the former bodyguard to both Capt. Camara and the general who succeeded him.

"Military violence is something that deeply frightens us," said Sidya Toure, who came in third in last year's election.

"We lived through this in '08, and again in '09. What it shows is that apparently there is a problem. There are things that remain unfinished."

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