Ex-army chief held after Guinea's Conde escapes attack

CONAKRY Tue Jul 19, 2011 6:54pm BST

Guinea president-elect Alpha Conde waves to his supporters after leaving Conakry's Grand Mosque December 3, 2010. REUTERS/Joseph Penney

Guinea president-elect Alpha Conde waves to his supporters after leaving Conakry's Grand Mosque December 3, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Joseph Penney

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CONAKRY (Reuters) - Guinean President Alpha Conde escaped two attacks on his residence on Tuesday that killed at least three people and left his home riddled with bullets, in assaults which authorities linked to former senior officers in the army.

The attacks renewed international concerns about the stability of the impoverished West African country which is seeking to shake off its coup-ridden past and make the most of its rich iron and bauxite resources.

A presidential source branded the assaults as an attempt to assassinate Conde. A senior police source said that a former army chief sacked by Conde days after he came to power last December had been arrested and taken into custody.

"Our enemies will not be able to stop Guinea's progress," Conde, whose December 2010 appointment ended two years of chaotic junta rule marred by brutal repression of its critics, told state television.

"I appeal to you to stay calm ... Let the army and the security services do their work," said the 73-year-old Conde, who gave no sign of having been harmed, according to a Reuters reporter present at the recording of his message.

Witnesses said the first attack took place at Conde's personal residence in the Kipe suburb and lasted for nearly two hours before it was repelled by Conde's personal guard.

"The kitchen is covered in blood and part of the building is riddled with bullet holes," said one witness who declined to be identified, saying the gate had been blown out with a rocket-launcher.

It later emerged that there had been a second attack around 11 a.m. (12 p.m. British time) which a presidential source said had been led by a former chief of the personal guard of Sekouba Konate, the soldier who oversaw the transition to civilian rule.

"For the time being we have counted three people killed, including one member of the president's personal guard," said a presidential source.

Nouhou Thiam, an army general who was sacked by Conde in one of his first moves to reform an army notorious for its lack of discipline, was among those arrested, a senior police source said, giving no further details.

A second soldier who was an ex-member of the presidential guard was also being held, police and army sources said.

"This can only reinforce the determination of the government, with the cooperation of the international community, to commit rigorously to reform of the security sector," Said Djinnit, special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in West Africa, told Reuters.

GUINEA IGNORED?

Guinea expert Mike McGovern at Yale University warned that the attack came at a fragile time for the region with neighbouring Ivory Coast recovering from a brush with civil war and Liberia gearing up for elections later this year.

"It sounds like a coup attempt from within the army," McGovern said by telephone.

"I think everyone has taken their eye off Guinea and that is a recipe for disaster. It is a post-conflict country and ought to have been treated like Liberia and Sierra Leone," he said of international peacekeeping forces that remained in those countries long after their civil wars ended.

Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, defeated by Conde in an 2010 election that triggered lethal ethnic violence, deplored the attack and also raised concerns about stability.

"If this violence persists it will not help consolidate the progress made towards democracy here," Diallo told Reuters by telephone from the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Soldiers erected roadblocks throughout the city and carried out checks on all vehicles on the road. Army pick-up trucks carrying soldiers patrolled the streets, but only a few residents ventured out of their homes.

Veteran opposition leader Conde came to power in the world's largest exporter of the aluminium ore bauxite last December after the first free election in the West African country since independence from France half a century ago.

The country had been ruled by a military junta since the death of veteran leader Lansana Conte in 2008.

Guinea's security forces have a reputation for brutality -- borne out by the 2009 killings by security forces of over 150 protesters during the rule of ex-junta chief Moussa Dadis Camara, who is now exiled in Burkina Faso.

However observers say there has been a marked improvement in army discipline since Conde came to power. He appointed himself defence minister to try to drive security reform.

Yet tensions have simmered, with Diallo's party opposing plans to carry out an electoral census before a parliamentary election Conde wants to hold by year-end, while ethnic tensions linked to cattle disputes in rural Guinea have also flared.

(Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur in Paris and Diadie Ba, David Lewis and Mark John in Dakar; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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