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Guinea's President Meets With Soldiers


Guinea's new defense minister is calling on disgruntled soldiers to end two weeks of sometimes-violent protests over a pay dispute and demands for new leadership. The defense minister's call came during a meeting with President Lansana Conte. Meanwhile, unions that led nationwide strikes earlier this year are renewing calls for political change. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Guinea President Lansana Conte met with disgruntled soldiers at the Samory Toure base in the capital's city center. There was heavy security for the meeting.

Newly-appointed defense minister Mamadou Bailo Diallo opened the meeting with a call for unity among soldiers. Some soldiers have started patrolling Conakry at night, to prevent more rioting and looting by other soldiers.

Mr. Conte temporarily appeased soldiers Saturday by dismissing top military officials, but rioting resumed later when the president angered soldiers by delaying the promised meeting. The soldiers are also asking for back pay they say is owed since 1996.

Gilles Yabi, a West Africa analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says the meeting provided an important opportunity for the soldiers to discuss their concerns directly with the president.

"I think it is an opportunity for Lansana Conte to try to calm down the situation and explain what he intends to do to, to further improve the situation of the military," he said.

He says the army has traditionally been an institution with a lot of privileges in Guinea and it wants to retain those advantages, but that now more money should be spent on other reforms.

"It is clearly very difficult to meet all the demands of the military right now because clearly the money has to be used to improving the conditions of ordinary Guineans, civilians," he added.

Guinean union leaders, commenting on the recent developments, say that they believe the soldiers have legitimate grievances, but deplore the violent methods that they have been using. There have been dozens of civilians injured and several killed during the unrest since the first of the month.

Unions stopped strikes and protests earlier this year when Mr. Conte named a new consensus prime minister. They had earlier called for his resignation, amid crumbling government services, and rising poverty.

An analyst at the London research institute Chatham House, Richard Reeve, says it is a good start that the president showed up for the meeting, but he is not overly optimistic about the outcome.

"I do not think the money is there to pay the salaries or these so-called outstanding bonuses," he noted. "I certainly do not think he is going to reinstate people in the military who were sacked 11 years ago, as some people want."

But he says the president will probably be able to hang on to his political power.

"He has certainly got elements of the military that are quite loyal to him, the air-force, the navy, the gendarmerie, and particularly the presidential guard and the Conakry battalion have all been loyal and protected the center of town and him, so he can probably weather this so long as he is actually willing to look to compromise," he added.

The diabetic, chain-smoking Mr. Conte, who can barely walk and spends most of his time under a tree in his home village, has been in power since a coup in 1984.

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