Saturday, December 5, 2009

Guinea junta's No. 2 returns after president shot

CONAKRY, Guinea — The overnight return to Guinea on Saturday of the No. 2 man in the junta that seized power a year ago makes it more likely that the military clique will be able to hang on to power following an assassination attempt on the president.

Many people, however, fear the army could fracture and plunge the country into further violence.

The head of the presidential guard who is accused of having fired at point-blank range on the president was still at large, and it is unclear how many of the roughly 150 men formerly under his control will stay loyal to him.

The Guinean army is said to be divided into units headed by different military strongmen which act more like private armies and were only loosely held together by Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara, who seized control last December.

Gen. Sekouba Konate, the vice president and minister of defense — who is said to be close to the wounded president — arrived overnight Saturday from Lebanon, where he had been when Camara was shot and wounded by his former top aide, said Idrissa Cherif, the spokesman for the National Council for Democracy and Development, or CNDD.

Camara was airlifted Friday in a private plane to a Moroccan hospital for treatment and underwent surgery on Saturday for the head wound, said Cherif.

Cherif, the minister of communication, said the surgery was "a minimal intervention" and that the bullet had only "grazed" his head. But a retired diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the bullet had caused splinters of bone from his skull to penetrate his brain. He said it would likely be weeks before Camara could return — if at all.

Blaise Compaore, the president of neighboring Burkina Faso who sent his private plane to transport Camara to Morocco, said on state radio that his condition "is difficult but not desperate," citing a doctor.

In sidewalk cafes and on radio talk shows, the constant chatter was about who is now in control? Cherif declined to say that Konate would assume the role of interim president, but said: "The CNDD is in control. Konate is the vice president of the CNDD. So he is the one giving us firm instructions. He coordinates everything. Dadis equals Konate and Konate equals Dadis. They are brothers ... He is our boss until our president returns."

Camara's departure has left a dangerous void in the country of 10 million where the military has become deeply fractured. It is the first time that the 45-year-old leader has left Guinea since seizing control in a coup last December and he canceled multiple trips abroad, sometimes leading his private plane idling on the tarmac, for fear of a countercoup.

The crisis was exacerbated by Konate's absence and the fact that Toumba has not been found, although the government on Saturday promised a large ransom to anyone with information and confirmed that four of his top aides had been arrested trying to leave the country.

Konate was rumored to have been one of three officers who could have become president during last year's military coup, but he ended up bowing out to Camara.

Since then, Konate has became one of Camara's closest associates and the two were almost always seen together. He is a commanding presence inside the army and is said to have several hundred men that are faithful to him.

A top diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in keeping with protocol, said that Konate does not appear to have presidential ambitions, in part because of his private nature as well as a speech impediment which makes it difficult for him to talk in public. Other diplomats confirmed the account, as did two government officials, all of whom requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press.

His return makes it more likely that the clan allied with Camara will be able to hang on to power and reign in the military, although the danger remains that the army is atomized and a group within it could use this as an opportunity to launch a countercoup. Part of the problem is that the army is rarely paid. Troops attach themselves to different commanders in an effort to secure their livelihood.

"The main bulk of the army is hanging around in barracks and not getting paid," said Richard Moncrieff, the West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. "The junta is heavily divided and factionalized — principally on personal lines. There are five to six strongmen, surrounded by their 'boys' who follow them around and carry their weapons in return for a little money," he said.

Guinea has been under military rule for the past 25 years, but only in the last year did the army devolve into near anarchy, with military pickup trucks loaded with armed men speeding through the capital acting as armed gangs.

Numerous businessmen and at least two diplomats have had their SUVs boldly stolen by the military.

In September, Mali's Ambassador Hassan Barry was driving home when soldiers yanked him out of his diplomatic car, stole his cell phone and drove off, the Malian flag fluttering in the wind.

Ghanaian ambassador Dominic Ezoa Aboagye also had his SUV stolen by soldiers, who took his money as well as his clothes and left him standing in his underwear on the side of the road, said two diplomats, including one inside the Malian Embassy, who were familiar with the matter and who spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with protocol.

In recent months, the military cliques have often turned on each other, with Toumba's men beating a senior general. And there was increasingly bad blood between Konate and Toumba following a Sept. 28 opposition rally in which the presidential guard opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators and raped female demonstrators.

Diplomats and junta officials say that Konate — who was away from Conakry during the slaughter — demanded that Toumba be arrested, but Camara refused. When Camara was shot by Toumba on Thursday it was allegedly after an argument broke out between them over who would take the blame in front of a U.N. commission now investigating the massacre, which killed at least 157 people.

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Associated Press writers Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and Solana Pyne in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects slug, incorporating story sent as BC-AF--Guinea-Uncontrolled Army. UPDATES with return of No. 2 man in junta.)

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