CONAKRY, Guinea – A military group seized control of the airwaves in mineral-rich Guinea and declared a coup Tuesday after the death of the West African country’s dictator, one of the continent’s last strongmen.
The turmoil raises the prospect of violence flaring in a region where neighbors Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia all have been devastated by years of war.
A group calling itself the National Council for Democracy began announcing its takeover on state-run radio and TV just hours after the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conte was made public.
“The government is dissolved. The institutions of the republic are dissolved. … From this moment on, the council is taking charge of the destiny of the Guinean people,” said the coup leader, who identified himself as Capt. Moussa Camara.
Dozens of armed soldiers were seen heading toward the prime minister’s office inside the country’s presidential compound. They appeared less than an hour after Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare announced in a state broadcast that he was inside his office and his government had not been dissolved.
An Associated Press reporter later saw two tanks parked near the compound and a third circulating through the capital. A fourth was parked at the headquarters of state-run radio and TV, where transmissions had been cut.
Guinea’s Army Chief of Staff Gen. Diarra Camara said the motives of the coup leaders were unclear.
“I think they are in a minority. They are not unanimously backed by the army for the time being. I don’t know their real objectives,” Camara told a French television channel.
In his takeover announcement, the coup leader said presidential elections would be held within 60 days and an interim president and prime minister would be appointed. The coup leaders were meeting late Tuesday to decide who would head the interim government, said Aboubacar Sompare, president of the National Assembly.
He said three candidates being considered: coup leader Moussa Camara, army chief Toto Camara and Col. Sekouba Konate, who heads an elite army unit.
The U.S. Embassy in Conakry said there had been no reports of fighting or casualties “but the situation remains fluid and uncertain at this time.”
Conte, who was believed to be in his 70s, was only Guinea’s second president since it gained independence from France a half-century ago.
While Guinea has managed to avoid the catastrophic wars that ravaged its West African neighbors, regional experts have warned for years that Conte’s death or ouster could send it into turmoil.
Richard Moncrieff, West Africa project director for International Crisis Group, said no successor to Conte was being groomed and no one can legitimately step up without elections. “If a constitutional transition of power is not effected, then it will be bad news for Guinea,” he said.
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