Drunken soldiers were loose on the streets of Guinea’s capital today, 24 hours after the presidential guard shot dead at least 157 pro-democracy demonstrators.
The soldiers fired into the air as they roamed the deserted streets of normally bustling Conakry. Guinea’s military leader, who rose to power in a December coup, said yesterday’s violence was beyond his control.
Dr Chierno Maadjou from the Guinean Organisation for Defence of Human Rights said 157 people had been killed and more than 1,200 wounded in the violence.
Human Rights Watch said eyewitnesses also told them that security forces had stripped female protesters and raped them in the streets. Others said soldiers had stabbed protesters with knives and bayonets.
Tensions have risen in Guinea amid rumours that military leader Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara may run in presidential elections set for January. Camara said that the shootings by members of his presidential guard were beyond his control.
“Those people who committed those atrocities were uncontrollable elements in the military,” he said. “Even I, as head of state in this very tense situation, cannot claim to be able to control those elements in the military.”
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the killing of dozens of unarmed protesters is “shocking even by the abusive standards of Guinea’s coup government.”
“Guinea’s leaders should order an immediate end to attacks on demonstrators and bring to justice those responsible for the bloodshed,” she said.
The African Union, the European Union and the government of neighbouring Senegal all denounced the violence. The AU had suspended Guinea’s membership after Camara seized power.
The African Union Commission condemned the “indiscriminate firing on unarmed civilians,” and urged Guinean officials to respect the freedom of expression and assembly.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for the immediate release of arrested political leaders.
Opposition leader Sidya Toure, a former prime minister, was arrested during the protests and released today. When he returned home, he said he found it had been ransacked.
“I have come back to a broken home,” he said. “What upsets me most is that they destroyed my library. All my books and souvenirs are gone.”
Camara came to power in a coup hours after long-time dictator Lansana Conte died. Camara initially said he would not run in any presidential election but recently appeared to have changed his mind.
The opposition-led protest in the capital’s main football stadium drew some 50,000 people, with demonstrators chanting “We want true democracy.”
Hardly anyone had heard of Camara, an army captain in his 40s, until December last year when his men broke down the glass doors of the state TV station. He announced that the constitution had been dissolved and that the country was now under the rule of a military junta.
In the days after the coup, Camara was initially embraced by Guineans, thousands of whom lined the streets to applaud his arrival on the back of a flatbed military truck.
But many began to question his tactics when he authorised raids on the homes of well-known members of Conte’s inner circle. Camara claimed the raids were intended to recoup money and property stolen from the state, but some residents complained officials were using heavy-handed tactics.
Since winning independence half a century ago from France, Guinea has been pillaged by its ruling elite. Its 10 million people are among the world’s poorest, even though its soil has diamonds, gold, iron and half the world’s reserves of the raw material used to make aluminium.