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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 February 2007, 14:34 GMT
Chaos as rioters rock Guinea
By Will Ross
BBC News, Conakry, Guinea

Weeks of mass protests in the west African state of Guinea have seen more than 100 demonstrators - who want the country's president, Lansana Conte, to stand down - shot dead by police and troops.

Protester in Guinea
More than 100 protesters have been killed by police and troops

I realised early on this was going to be an eventful trip. The car broke down on the way to my hotel from the airport and, along with half a dozen children, I was soon pushing a battered Mercedes Benz through the filthy streets as the driver tried to jump start it.

"Don't stop! One more try," was the repeated refrain. But I was far from optimistic when he popped the bonnet.

I am no mechanic but the sight of an upturned, punctured can of tomato puree serving as a part of the engine would surely look out of place in any car.

I eventually arrived, drenched in sweat, at the hotel reception and since that moment it has often been chaotic.

But Guineans are used to that.

Bad to worse

Guinea's President Lansana Conte
President Conte won a third term in 2003 elections despite poor health
Since independence from France almost fifty years ago the country has only had two presidents.

The current leader, Lansana Conte, a diabetic chain-smoker in his 70s, seized power 23 years ago, but even as his health fails, he shows no sign of stepping down.

Guinea is mineral rich but like so many African countries, as the raw materials leave the port, the population sees little benefit. Meanwhile the economy has gone from bad to worse, in step with the president's health.

Ministers learn of their fate on the evening news which usually abruptly interrupts endless hours of music videos.

Map of Guinea
Last May the state television newsreader announced the latest presidential decree, a cabinet reshuffle which included increased power for the prime minister.

The very next morning the reshuffle was overturned and the prime minister was jobless. Guineans have often wondered who is in charge here.

But with massive unemployment and a civil servant's salary barely covering the cost of getting the bus to work and feeding the family, people are saying enough is enough.

Angry young men

I will not forget the name Hamdallaye in a hurry. This suburb was where demonstrations against President Conte began over the weekend.

Driving with a BBC colleague, Al Hassan, we passed groups of angry young men keen to yell into the microphone a rude word or 50 against their president.

We sat beside a wall as gunfire rang out from not far away. Plumes of thick black smoke filled the air where protesters were burning tyres.

Protesters in Guinea (file photo)
The rioters want Guinea's president, Lansana Conte, to stand down
Al Hassan and I found ourselves in looters' alley. Panting men passed us with souvenirs from ransacked homes; air conditioners, glitzy light fittings and one looter who had not set his sights too high pulled a light bulb out of his pocket.

All over the country law and order was breaking down and it was no coincidence that the homes of several government ministers were targeted.

Flee to safety

Hamdallaye did not look like the best place to spend the night so before sunset we set off for the city centre. No way through.

People are only allowed out of their homes between the hours of noon and six in the evening
Accompanied by a gang of teenagers, a seven foot giant in an orange T-shirt with eyes as red as traffic lights stood in our way. His name was Talaban.

We turned round and found a place to sleep, or at least try to between the rounds of gunfire.

Shortly before dawn we tried again. On the back seat of the car sat a frightened woman we had offered to drive to safety. The main road was strewn with boulders and we drove over hundreds of pairs of second hand women's shoes, presumably looted from a truck the night before.

Guinean soldiers stand guard on the streets of the capital, Conakry (file picture)
The army has been ordered to quell protests in Guinea's towns
Then as we turned at an impassable pile of wood and rocks, three men ran towards the car. One wielding a machete smashed the back windscreen but thanks to my colleague's heavy foot on the accelerator, we made it away but not far.

The rocks had caused so much damage, engine oil was pouring out and so we had to abandon the car and walk to safety.

As I prepared to send the report of the violence to the studios in London, Al Hassan stopped me. "Do you mind deleting those bits where you can hear the lady screaming in the back of the car?" he asked me. "You see my wife will worry who that woman was in my car."

A bit of careful editing and the shrieks were gone and Al Hassan looked a little more relaxed.

Uncertain future

As I write this it is increasingly hard to guess what will happen next.

The president has declared martial law and the army chief has imposed a curfew. People are only allowed out of their homes between the hours of noon and six in the evening.

In the hotel reception a Moroccan waitress is bidding a tearful farewell as her country sends in a military plane to evacuate her and her colleagues.

A Japanese businessman is doing lengths of the hotel swimming pool in between glasses of red wine.

An Indian pharmacist who wonders whether his contract with the ministry of health will be worth the paper it is written on, has approached me with his latest plan.

"Ah Mr Will Mr Will. What about a speedboat?" he asks.

As for eight million Guineans. They too can only guess what will happen, but they cannot leave.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 15 February, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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