CONAKRY (Reuters) - Mutinous Guinean soldiers launched a coup attempt on Tuesday in the West African bauxite exporter hours after the death was announced of long-serving President Lansana Conte, a senior official said.
“There is an attempted coup d’etat,” National Assembly President Aboubacar Sompare, who under the constitution should take over as interim head of state, told French TV station France 24.
“I don’t think all of the army are behind the mutineers ... It’s a group,” he added, speaking from his home in the capital Conakry.
The attempted coup was launched just hours after government leaders said Conte, believed to be 74, had died from illness following nearly a quarter century of rule over the country, the world’s leading exporter of bauxite aluminum ore.
Sompare said negotiations were underway between those officers and soldiers attempting the coup, who earlier announced the suspension of the constitution and the government in a radio broadcast, and those loyal to constitutional rule.
The national assembly head said he believed the majority of the military were “loyalist.”
Former colonial power France said it would oppose any coup in Guinea. “We will not be content with a situation that does not respect the constitutional order,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier told a news conference.
“It seems that the legitimate authorities are currently in control of the situation in the country,” Chevallier said.
Heavily-armed soldiers guarded the strategic road bridge giving access to downtown Conakry and also patrolled the streets in pick-up trucks. But the city was calm.
In an earlier broadcast on state radio announcing the suspension of the constitution, one of the coup-plotters, Captain Moussa Davis Camara, said a National Council for Democracy and Development was taking over.
The broadcast cited what it called widespread corruption, impunity and anarchy and a “catastrophic economic situation” to justify the dissolving of the government. “The members of the current government are in large part responsible for this unprecedented economic and social crisis,” it said.
The death of Conte, a diabetic, chain-smoking general, left a power vacuum in the bauxite exporter, where companies like Alcoa, Rio Tinto Alcan and Russia’s RUSAL have major operations.
Guinea, most of whose people are poor, has experienced anti-government riots and strikes and bloody military mutinies in recent years, aggravated by rising prices of food and fuel.
Appearing on TV in the early hours of Tuesday with other government and military leaders, Sompare had announced Conte had died on Monday evening. He asked the country’s Supreme Court to name him president in line with the constitution.
Guinea’s constitution foresees the national assembly president taking over in the event of the death of the head of state and organizing presidential elections in 60 days. Legislative elections were already planned for 2009.
Sompare declared 40 days of national mourning.
Rumors that Conte was seriously ill had circulated for days. Conte, who said he was born around 1934, had governed Guinea since 1984 when he seized power after the country’s first president, Sekou Toure, died in a U.S. hospital.
But he never groomed a clear successor.
Analysts said the way in which the military, a key pillar of support for Conte’s rule, reacted to the news of his death would be crucial to the future stability of the country.
“The military obeyed Conte ... and now he’s not there,” one veteran local journalist told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Conte became reclusive in his later years of rule and often traveled abroad for medical treatment.
Veteran opposition leader Jean Marie Dore of the Union for the Progress of Guinea party, a fierce critic of Conte, said he was saddened by his death. “It is essential that the institutions function correctly and that the provisions of the constitution be respected,” said Dore.
Last year, a general strike triggered anti-government riots in which more than 180 people were killed, most of them shot by Conte’s forces, according to witnesses and human rights groups.
Analysts saw little impact on mining operations. “If you look at the history of Guinea and Guinea mining ... they have continued to mine, so the base assumption would be nothing really changes in the short term,” said Julian Kettle, aluminum research manager at U.K.-based industry consultants Brook Hunt.