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The BBC's Mark Doyle
The crisis in the eyes of a refugee and a UNHCR official
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Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 13:38 GMT
The Guinea conflict explained

By African analyst Elizabeth Blunt

The current fighting in Guinea is not a stand-alone war - it is part of the messy and complicated regional conflict which started in Liberia more than 10 years ago.

Although the violence has only recently moved to Guinean soil, the country has been affected by, and involved in, the conflict from the very start.

When Charles Taylor - now Liberian president, but then an obscure rebel leader - launched his rebellion at Christmas 1989, he did so very close to the Guinean border, in the mineral-rich area where Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast all meet.

One of the first things that happened was that local people ran away, across the border into Guinea. They were the first of an eventual 500,000 refugees.

Refugee camps in Guinea are full of Sierra Leoneans
When the other countries of West Africa first formed an intervention force to try to restore order in Liberia - and stop Charles Taylor - Guinea was a founder member.

It allowed some of the politically active Liberian refugees to organise and recruit, and became the rear base for one of the armed movements known as Ulimo-K.

So Charles Taylor and Guinean President Lansana Conte have always been on opposite sides.

Spreading conflict

Fighting began to spread to Guinea itself last year, already having engulfed its other neighbour, Sierra Leone.

Refugees were harrassed by police and soldiers, and attacked by local youths

There was trouble on the Sierra Leone border around Forecariah and Kindia, not far from the capital, and also hundreds of kilometres to the east, where Guinea borders Liberia.

At first these were hit-and-run raids, with the attackers coming across, killing civilians and burning villages, and then retreating back across the border, taking with them whatever they could loot. They showed no sign of taking and holding ground.

But the attacks did have one major effect - they turned the local Guinean population against the refugees living among them.

Refugees were harrassed by police and soldiers, and attacked by local youths. The authorities accused them of collaborating with the attackers, and confined them to their camps, which were often dangerously close to the fighting.


President Conte's first reaction was to blame his old adversary, Charles Taylor. The Guinean Government declared that it was the victim of a Liberian invasion, by people greedy to get their hands on Guinea's wealth.

British marine talking to a local villager in Sierra Leone
UK forces are helping the government tackle rebels in Sierra Leone
Meanwhile a group calling itself the "Rassemblement des Forces Democratiques de Guinee" had been phoning international radio stations, and a hitherto unknown spokesman, Mohamed Lamine Fofana, had been claiming the attacks were the work of the Guinean opposition.

In fact both things seem to be going on at the same time.

In the attacks near the Sierra Leone border, the ones closest to Conakry, some Guineans do seem to have been involved.

There have been persistant reports of a Guinean rebel group training inside Liberia, with, at its core, Gbago Zoumanigui and the army mutineers who fled after narrowly failing to overthrow the government in 1996.

After training, the rebels are reported to have moved across the border to Sierra Leone, and linked up with the Liberian-backed rebel movement there, the RUF.

This alliance of Guineans and Sierra Leoneans, with a few Liberians thrown in, seems to be responsible for the attacks near Kinda and Forecariah.

Most of the initial Guinean military effort was in this area, perhaps because it is relatively close to the capital, and this group has now been pushed well back across the border, with most of the fighting now taking place around Kambia, an RUF-held area inside Sierra Leone.

UNHCR workers with refugees
The UN want to move the refugees to safer areas
But in the forest region, along the border with Liberia, the initial attacks were an all-Liberian affair, the result of President Taylor's forces mounting cross-border raids against Liberian rebel bases around Macenta.

The presence of these Liberians - still known as Ulimo-K - is an open secret in Guinea. As soon as the attacks started, they were out in Macenta for all to see, manning road blacks and taking an active part in the defence of the city.

The battles in this area are now becoming very serious, with aircraft and helicopter gunships, as well as heavy artillery being used in the border area.

The attackers are no longer just raiding villages, they have attacked the two main towns in the region, Macenta and Gueckedou, occupying parts of them for a time, driving out the population and leaving buildings in ruins.

The Guinean army is clearly struggling, and this may be in part because the Liberian dissidents, whom they had armed and relied on to help them, have proved unreliable allies. Some at least are reported to have changed sides, and joined the attacking Liberians.

Regional alarm

The spread of the war to Guinea has caused ripples of alarm around the region. Neighbouring countries first of all concentrated on trying to get President Taylor and President Conte to resolve their differences and to stop harbouring and encouraging each other's dissidents. This had little success.

Guinea has never been very high on the international agenda, but the spread of the conflict has rung a lot of alarm bells around the world

But since both Guinea and Liberia were claiming to be the innocent parties, both said they would be very happy if the border between them could be sealed, to prevent attacks from the other side.

So the West African Economic Community, Ecowas, has begun work on a border monitoring force, to secure the border. Both sides agreed to this, even President Taylor, despite the fact that similar Ecowas forces have always been against him in the past.

Preliminary reconaissance was done and a force commander - a Nigerian - appointed, but the deployment of the monitoring force has been delayed by an upsurge in fighting.

There seems no chance of its going ahead as long as pitched battles are raging around the border.

International fears

Guinea has never been very high on the international agenda, but the spread of the conflict has rung a lot of alarm bells, in West Africa and around the world.

Refugees in Guinea
Many refugees want to return to their homes
The conspiracy theorists are talking once again in terms of a West African domino theory, of a master plan fronted by Charles Taylor, but involving Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, backed by Libya and approved by France.

This aims - they say - to reduce American influence, and break the power of the too-dominant English speaking countries in the region.

The Liberian and Gambian dominos have already fallen, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are teetering, and after that Senegal and ultimately Nigeria are threatened.

But you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see a more immediate threat.

The international community has invested heavily in supporting the elected government in Sierra Leone - there is a regional force there, and also a big United Nations peacekeeping operation. Britain has sent troops as well.

But despite this, President Kabbah's government is still fragile. Sierra Leone already has a hostile border with Liberia to the east, across which the rebels move freely.

If Guinea falls into the hands of President Taylor and his friends - perhaps as the result of a coup d'etat precipitated by the fighting - it would be a disaster for President Kabbah and all his backers.

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