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Guinea coup leader parades through city

December 24, 2008 9:52:28 PM PST
The leader of a coup in Guinea and several thousand soldiers paraded through the capital Wednesday as cheering crowds screamed "long live the president!" Renegade army Capt. Moussa Camara said his group would hold power until elections in two years. Cautiously at first and then by the thousand, people lined streets to applaud Camara, a virtual unknown until the death two days ago of longtime dictator Lansana Conte set in motion a political upheaval.

He stood in the first truck of a military convoy en route to the presidential palace and waved to the throng. A phalanx of soldiers hoisting Kalashnikovs accompanied the parade.

"I came to see if the terrain is favorable to us. I see that it is," Camara told those in the crowd, many of whom waved tree branches in celebration.

It was the first time the capital's residents had ventured outdoors since the military-led coup was declared Tuesday in this broken West African nation.

Initially the coup leaders promised elections within 60 days, but Camara said in a broadcast Wednesday that the 32-member junta would hold power for about two years.

"The National Council for Democracy and Development has no ambition of staying in power," he said on state radio. "We are here to promote the organization of credible and transparent presidential elections by the end of December 2010."

Soldiers loyal to the coup plotters circulated in tanks and jeeps armed with rocket launchers.

Guinea's prime minister - in hiding since the coup was declared - said earlier Wednesday that the government remained in control.

"This unknown captain doesn't control the army. The majority of the troops are still loyal - but one little group can cause a lot of disorder," Ahmed Tidiane Souare said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States will be "examining what options we have in the coming days," including a possible cutoff of non-humanitarian aid. He called for the immediate "restoration of civilian, democratic rule."

Uncertainty remained about whether Camara's group controls all of Guinea.

Ba Mamadou, a former World Bank adviser and honorary president of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea, told Radio France International that the coup organizers had politicians' backing.

"Political leaders were involved in editing" the coup declaration, he said, without naming anyone. "It's clear that for a long time, a lot of people were preparing something for after Conte."

Camara accused the government of importing mercenaries to help regain power. Parliament leader Aboubacar Sompare - who constitutionally is next in line to be president - said the claim showed the junta's desperation.

Those in Conakry showing support for the army takeover said they were ready for a change.

"Sompare is a continuation of Lansana Conte," said 49-year-old Cozy Haba. "I recognize that what we are doing instead is jumping into the unknown. But to me that's better than Sompare - who unfortunately I know too well."

Until Conte's death Monday night, Guinea had been ruled by only two people since its 1958 independence from France. Conte first took power in a 1984 military coup after his predecessor's death, embarking on more than two decades of stern-handed, dictatorial rule.

He won presidential elections in 1993, 1998 and 2003, but the ballots were marred by accusations of fraud. In 2003, Conte secured 95 percent of the vote - an improbably high tally for a man many say was unpopular.

But some said the coup could be the best thing for Guinea, a nation ruled by the same man for the past 24 years.

Africa expert Peter Pham said it would be a mistake to regard the constitution as legitimate, given that it was drawn up by supporters of a man who never intended to relinquish power.

For years, Conte was forced to make TV appearances to counter rumors that he was in fact dead. His declining health paralleled the decay of what was once one of Africa's most promising states - blessed with diamonds, gold and half the world's reserves of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum.

By 2002, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suspended aid because of bad governance. Guinea in 2006 was ranked Africa's most corrupt state by the governmental watchdog group Transparency International.

Economic statistics paint a gloomy picture. From a tame 4 percent in the 1990s, inflation is now over 20 percent and growth has been cut in half. Guineans earn on average just $91 per month, a sum that led to riots last year when a government salary could no longer allow a family to buy a bag of rice.


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