- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

CONAKRY, Guinea | A military-led group seized control of the airwaves in Guinea and declared a coup Tuesday after the death of the mineral-rich West African country’s longtime dictator, but the prime minister insisted he remained in charge.

Dozens of soldiers were seen heading toward the prime minister’s office inside the country’s presidential compound. The troops’ allegiance was not immediately apparent, but they appeared less than an hour after Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare announced in a state broadcast that he was inside his office and that his government had not been dissolved.

Two tanks were parked near the compound, and a third was circulating through the capital. A fourth was parked at the headquarters of state-run radio and TV, where transmissions had been cut.

Earlier Tuesday, a group calling itself the National Council for Democracy began announcing its takeover on state-run radio and TV, just hours after longtime dictator Lansana Conte’s death was made public.

“The government is dissolved. The institutions of the republic are dissolved. … From this moment on, the council is taking charge of the destiny of the Guinean people,” said the coup leader, who identified himself as Capt. Moussa Camara.

Mr. Conte, who was believed to be in his 70s, although the government never disclosed his birth date, was only Guinea’s second president since it gained independence from France a half-century ago.

He was one of the last members of a dwindling group of so-called “African Big Men” who came to power by the gun and resisted the democratic tide sweeping the continent. Mr. Conte’s death Monday leaves just a handful, including Gabon’s Omar Bongo, who took power in 1967, and Robert Mugabe, who has been Zimbabwe’s only leader since its 1980 independence.

White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said the U.S. was working with other countries in the region and the African Union on the issue of a smooth succession.

“We stand with the people of Guinea, who certainly strive for peace and a democratic transition and an opportunity to get to a next government in the best way,” Mr. Fratto said. “And it’s obviously a troubled region and with a history that hasn’t always seen those kinds of smooth transitions of power. And so we’re keeping an eye on it.”

Guinea has half the world’s known reserves of bauxite, the ore used to produce aluminum, and it has deposits of gold, diamonds and iron ore. Analysts say the nation, at the confluence of several West African rivers, could generate enough electricity to power the region.

But Guinea’s economy has rapidly deteriorated and its 10 million people have remained among the poorest in the world. A food exporter at independence, Guinea turned to importing food as it became more impoverished, crippled by corruption, inflation and high unemployment.

Mr. Conte’s unpopularity was reflected in revolts by disgruntled soldiers and at least two attempts to oust him.

He took power in a 1984 military coup after the death of his predecessor. As a post-Cold War democracy wave swept the continent, he formed a political party and won elections in 1993. He was re-elected in 1998 and 2003, but all the elections were viewed as fraudulent and rejected by Guinea’s beleaguered opposition.

During the last election, rumors of his failing health were already circulating. He was reportedly so ill that he did not even get out of the car to cast his ballot. That winter, he went on TV to put a stop to the rumors of his death.

A similar wave of rumors began gathering force two weeks ago, when Mr. Conte failed to make his usual televised appearance on the occasion of a major Muslim holiday. Last week, the editor of a local paper was arrested after publishing a picture of the frail leader struggling to stand up. The newspaper was ordered to print a photograph of Mr. Conte showing him in good health.

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