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Guinea Soldiers Riot, Demand Meeting With President

Guinea returned to calm Sunday after soldiers, wanting to meet with President Lansana Conte and displeased with his choice for a new defense minister, rioted in the capital Saturday night, firing shots in the air and looting. President Conte had said he would meet with the soldiers, who have been demonstrating for nearly two weeks over back pay and living situations, on Saturday morning but failed to show. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Local journalist Maseco Conde says the soldiers' mood changed from joy to rage Saturday after President Conte dismissed several top military officials, meeting soldiers' demands, but then did not meet with them as he said he would.

Conde says soldiers broke into stores and warehouses in Matam, a suburb of Conakry, and stole rice and other supplies.

Firing continued throughout the night and there were several injuries reported.

Soldiers in Guinea have been firing shots into the air for nearly two weeks, calling for the removal of certain top military officials, better living conditions and to be paid for back salaries and given raises they say are due to them.

Saturday President Conte dismissed a handful of key military officials, including Defense Minister Arafan Camara. Conde says while many soldiers were happy with the dismissals, others say they will not accept the replacements President Conte has named.

Conde says a group of soldiers are rejecting President Conte's naming of Mamadou Bailo Diallo, a retired officer, as the new minister of defense because they say he has been involved in corruption.

Guinea's army was key in keeping President Conte in power during debilitating nationwide strikes and protests earlier this year.

Rolake Akinola, an analyst with London-based consultancy Control Risks, says this boost has given the army more confidence to press forward with their demands for better pay and living situations.

Akinola says ethnic divisions in the army are also playing a role in the recent unrest. President Conte is an ethnic Sosso, a minority group in Guinea.

"When [Mr.] Conte actually came to power one of the things he had done with the army is he had purged the army of non Sosso officer," said Akinola. "They are actually a minority group. And that had really radicalized many of the junior officers, many of whom were actually ethnic Malinke and Peuhl. In a sense a lot of their career progression prospects were jeoparadized because of [Mr.] Conte's purge."

Akinola says while Mr. Conte may find a way to appease the soldiers for the time being, the protest only highlights the need for greater reform.

"I suspect that through some kind of character approach he might be able to calm things for the time being, but only in the short to medium term," added Akinola. "I think what needs to happen is real, wholesome reconstruction of the army and addressing some of the economic issues that are fueling unrest within the armed forces and the country."

President Conte's meeting with the soldiers has been rescheduled for Monday.