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World News

Guinea soldiers attempt coup after president dies

CONAKRY (Reuters) - Mutinous Guinean soldiers attempted a coup on Tuesday hours after the death was announced of the West African nation’s long-serving President Lansana Conte.

But the prime minister said the government was still in place, and the head of the army said he believed the plotters were in the minority.

Mutineers earlier broadcast a communique on state radio suspending the constitution and the government, and denouncing widespread corruption and “catastrophic” economic conditions in the country.

“It is not dissolved,” Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare said in comments broadcast by Radio France International. “We are working to organize the funeral (of dead President Conte) and we appeal to the understanding and compassion of all Guineans, especially the military,” he said.

It was not clear how much support the coup plotters had for their bid to take over the world’s biggest exporter of aluminum ore bauxite.

“I think they are in the minority ... they are not the majority in the army,” Guinea’s armed forces chief, General Diarra Camara, told French TV station France 24.

Officials said negotiations were held at the main Alpha Yaya Diallo military base in Conakry’s suburbs, between soldiers and officers who supported the coup and those who wanted to stay loyal to constitutional procedure.

“The situation is volatile ... But my feeling is that they will arrive at some sort of agreement,” said Elizabeth Cote, country director in Guinea for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a non-partisan group which promotes democratic elections.

National Assembly President Aboubacar Sompare, who under the constitution should take over as interim head of state following Conte’s death on Monday, told French TV an “attempted coup d’etat” was under way.

Guinean President Lansana Conte walks with an unidentified aide to take his seat before talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in this July 27, 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Viktor Korotayev/Files

Shots were heard from the neighborhood of the Alpha Yaya Diallo camp, residents said. But despite the presence of heavily-armed military patrols, and at least one tank in the streets, the dilapidated seaside capital of Conakry was calm.

“I don’t think all of the army are behind the mutineers ... It’s a group,” Sompare told France 24, speaking from 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.

In radio broadcasts, the soldiers attempting the coup told government leaders to go to the Alpha Yaya Diallo camp “for their protection,” but Sompare said he and Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare were still at liberty.

Former colonial power France, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, said it would oppose any coup in Guinea. This position was echoed by the African Union and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, while the United States urged Guinea to move toward more democratic governance.

Heavily-armed soldiers guarded the strategic road bridge giving access to downtown Conakry, the presidency and the central bank, and also patrolled the streets in pick-up trucks.

In the broadcast 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.

NATION “ON THE PRECIPICE”

The broadcast cited what it called widespread corruption and a “catastrophic economic situation” to justify the dissolving of the government, which it said was largely responsible for this.

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 hangs on the precipice. There is no democratic transition to now speak of,” Kissy Agyeman, Africa analyst with IHS Global Insight, said in a briefing note.

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.

Sompare had announced Conte had died on Monday evening, and asked the country’s Supreme Court to name him president in line with the constitution, in order to organize presidential elections within 60 days.

Legislative elections were already planned for 2009.

Rumors that Conte was seriously ill had circulated for days. Conte, who said he was born around 1934, had governed Guinea since seizing power in 1984.

But the president, for whom the military was a key pillar of support, never groomed a clear successor.

Analysts saw little impact on mining operations. “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.

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