- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

FORECARIAH, Guinea | Up a dirt road inside the thick forest here, many fear the seeds of Africa’s next civil war are being sown.

Beyond two heavily guarded checkpoints is a sprawling camp, where white contractors are giving military training to an estimated 1,500 to 4,000 men from one of Guinea’s smallest ethnic groups. The trainees, say a camp employee, a government official and several diplomats, are almost all Guerze, the tribe of Guinea’s troubled leader.

The camp is one more sign of the growing instability in this West African nation of 10 million, where the president, Capt. Moussa “Dadis” Camara, was shot at and wounded by his own presidential guard last week. Isolated and increasingly fearful for his safety, Capt. Camara appears to be tapping the dangerous sentiment of tribal allegiance in a bid to hold onto power.

Dictators have used such tactics throughout the continent, in some cases plunging countries into civil war. War in Guinea could also spread across the region along ethnic lines, because Guinea shares its largest ethnic group, the Peuhl, with five neighboring countries.

“We worry that [Capt. Camara] is recruiting and training this ethnic militia so that it can carry out blows below the belt,” said Mamadou Baadikko, president of the Union of Democratic Forces, an opposition party. “If this doesn’t stop, the risk of civil war is real.”

Capt. Camara, 45, led a military coup last December, hours after the death of former strongman Lansana Conte. His first speeches were stirring, promising to crack down on corruption in the dirt-poor country and to hold elections in which he would not run. Many hoped he would reach out beyond his immediate clan because it makes up just 0.05 percent of the population and because he is Christian in an 85 percent Muslim country.

But nearly all the top ministries were handed to men from his ethnic group. And only a few months later, Capt. Camara began hinting that he planned to run for office.

When opposition leaders led a rally on Sept. 28 to demand that he step down, the presidential guard opened fire on the thousands of protesters, killing at least 157. Witnesses say the protesters were mostly Peuhl, while the soldiers who attacked them were overwhelmingly “forestier,” the ethnic groups from Guinea’s forested southeast, including the Guerze.

It was just a few weeks before the massacre that residents of Forecariah, a dusty town 80 miles south of the country’s capital, began seeing buses arrive loaded with young men who spoke only forestier dialects.

Most mornings since then, the young recruits have been seen running a five-mile loop through the villages surrounding the town, chanting pro-Dadis slogans. Leading them, residents say, are muscular white men with buzzed haircuts.

The training camp for the militia is inside the former campus of the national gendarmerie academy in the village of Kalia, 2 1/2 miles up a dirt road from Forecariah, said a camp employee who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. He said that in midsummer, the academy’s director and staff were replaced by men from the president’s ethnic group.

Eighty percent of the recruits, he said, are Guerze. The rest are from the related forestier tribes. Only a handful are from the country’s major ethnicities, including the Peuhl, which make up 40 percent of the population, and the Soussou, which account for 20 percent.

The man said white mercenaries are leading combat drills, including use of automatic weapons and commando tactics. When asked where they come from, they answer “from another country.”

Local residents said the foreign trainers were staying at the Hotel Bafila in Forecariah. On a recent evening, about a dozen white men were inside the hotel’s restaurant, speaking English and two other languages, which sounded like Hebrew and Afrikaans. Several wore black T-shirts that said “Instructor” on the back.

When an AP reporter asked for a room, the hotel staff went to find a white man with short gray hair in an instructor T-shirt. He placed what looked like a canister of Mace on the table in front of the reporter, tapped it and asked whether she had taken any photographs, which he said was forbidden. He said the entire hotel and a second one nearby had been totally booked by “a company.”

Parked outside were several four-wheel drive vehicles and a large bus with license plates beginning with “AG,” designated for the “Armee Guineene,” French for the Guinean Army. Locals say the bus ferries the men to and from the camp.

Idrissa Cherif, the junta’s minister of communication, said media reports that mercenaries are in Guinea are “lies.” He said Israelis are at the camp in Kalia on an official mission to train the Guinean army.

“Yes, there are Israeli citizens here,” Mr. Cherif said. “They are training our army … why do they want to tarnish the image of my country by calling them mercenaries?”

But the Israeli government said no permits have been issued to Israeli companies or individuals to operate in the security sector in Guinea.

“Those doing so are acting in violation of Israeli law and may face criminal charges in Israel,” said Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

The team is led by Daniel Oosthuizen, an 18-year South African police veteran, according to the Star, a Johannesburg newspaper, which cited unnamed sources. The paper said the trainers were sent to Guinea by a Dubai-based company called Omega Strategic Services (OSS).

When the AP called the Hotel Bafila and asked to speak to Mr. Oosthuizen, the operator said: “He hasn’t come back from the camp yet.” Telephone calls to the Dubai office of OSS and mobile numbers listed on the company’s Web site went unanswered. The Web site lists Mr. Oosthuizen as its director of operations.

Mr. Cherif denied South African trainers are in Guinea, but the South African government said it is investigating.

It is not clear whether the militia has already been put to use. Opposition leaders say they received calls from Forecariah on Sept. 27, saying buses full of young men had left the town, headed for the capital. The next day, the presidential guard surrounded the capital’s soccer stadium where protesters had gathered and sealed off the exits. When they entered, they emptied their AK-47s into the crowd, according to numerous witnesses. Dozens of women and girls were raped, including with rifle butts, sticks and knives.

The violence had a strong ethnic dimension. Survivors said the presidential guard taunted the protesters with cries of: “We will exterminate the Peuhl.” Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said 20 out of the 27 rape victims she interviewed were Peuhl, recognizable by their lighter skin.

Peuhl journalists have fled the country. Peuhl opposition leaders have had their homes ransacked, and several say they narrowly survived assassination attempts. And those close to Capt. Camara say he has warned that he would never allow the Peuhl to take power.

Diplomats, experts and opposition leaders said the targeting is especially dangerous because the Peuhl span the region.

“May God help us because what he is doing is dragging us to the rim of a civil war,” said a top member of the military junta, who does not agree with Capt. Camara’s ethnic politics but said he could not be identified for fear of persecution. “And if we - Guinea - fall into a civil war, it will drag in the entire region, from Senegal to Liberia to Sierra Leone to Mali.”

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