Ethnic tensions simmer in crisis-struck Guinea

CONAKRY Sun Dec 13, 2009 9:19am EST

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CONAKRY (Reuters) - An assassination bid aimed at the first Guinean leader from the minority Guerze tribe has raised concerns that ethnic and regional divisions in the country could deepen.

Junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara is in a hospital in Morocco after rogue soldiers attacked him and fled last week.

"I am worried that if Camara comes back and he chooses to blame other ethnicities for supporting the attack, it could cause trouble," said Conakry resident Mohamed Lamine Soumah.

Guinea is the world's biggest supplier of aluminum ore bauxite and is seen as a lynchpin of stability in a region still recovering from three civil wars this decade.

The country, which won independence from France in 1958, is dominated by the Malinke, Peul and Sousou ethnicities, but has more than a dozen smaller groups, including the Guerze from the forested "forestier" region in the southeast.

Camara took power last December in a coup after the death of former military strongman Lansana Conte, a Sousou. The coup drew support from forestiers who feel their region and its people have been underrepresented in power.

"Dadis was chosen by God to lead Guinea," said Balla Dopavogui, a forestier working as a tire-repairman who lives in Conakry's Dixxin neighborhood. "He must come back to lead."

The strong support among forestiers comes despite widespread outrage over a crackdown on protesters September 28 in which more than 150 people -- mostly Peul -- were killed by a force that witnesses said included many forestiers.

So far the junta has shown little sign of wanting to stir up ethnic division further, and earlier this week accused former colonial power France of backing a coup -- an accusation that Foreign Minister Alexandre Cece Loua later withdrew.

"While it is possible, it is unlikely at this stage that Camara will try to stoke ethnic tensions," political analyst Madani Dia said. "Particularly since they seem more prone to implicating external powers."

Dia said an ethnic conflict may not be in Camara's interests given the Guerze make up just 1 percent, and the forestiers just 10 percent, of the population of 10 million.

"AN ISSUE OF CONCERN"

Most of the violent ethnic conflicts in Guinea's recent past have involved the Peul, who make up about 40 percent of the country and who have never been in power.

In 1993, open violence broke out between the Peul and the Sousou amid accusations the Peul were trying to overthrow President Sekou Toure, who had both Sousou and Malinke parents.

Nonetheless, the potential for deepening divisions remains and could spread beyond Guinea's borders to neighboring Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, experts say.

The Guerze are related to the Kpelle, the largest ethnic group in Liberia, itself recovering from years of war.

Prior to the attempt on Camara's life, reports emerged that he had set up a military camp outside the capital, using foreign mercenaries to train a force of mostly Guerze soldiers to secure his place in power.

"The ethnic issue is of concern," a Western diplomat said.

Witnesses near the camp, just outside the village of Forecariah, have said more than 1,000 soldiers are training and white mercenaries can be seem leading the recruits.

"There is an ethnic dimension here that should not be ignored and that is why it would be good to know how Dadis's community (the forestiers) will react if they hear the president is dead," said Conakry resident Alpha Barry.

The junta's No. 2. Sekouba Konate -- a Malinke -- has taken temporary control during Camara's medical treatment and has directed a violent sweep of the military to root out renegade elements, though there is no evidence the reprisals are ethnically based.

The junta has named Camara's former aide de camp Aboubacar "Toumba" Diakite -- also Malinke -- as responsible for the assassination attempt.

(Editing by David Lewis and Angus MacSwan)

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