Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Saturday, 31 October 2009

'Big guns' herald Guinea's crisis

Moussa Dadis Camara in Conakry, October 2009
Capt Moussa Dadis Camara seized power in December 2008

Tens of thousands of workers in the West African state of Guinea are on strike, protesting after government soldiers opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators at a football stadium in the capital, Conakry, last month. Mark Doyle reports on how events are playing out on the capital's streets.

I do not know what it is about anti-aircraft guns that African soldiers like so much. Wars in these parts rarely involve shooting down planes.

But when a crisis strikes, the anti-aircraft guns always start appearing.

Maybe it is because they are big guns. Or maybe it is because the merchants of death, the arms dealers, have a surplus of the things these days. Maybe they are cheap.

Anyway, I was driving past the home of Guinea's defence minister when I saw at least three of these giant machine guns mounted on the back of parked pick-up trucks. There were hundreds of soldiers milling around the gates of his house.

The minister's residence is large, but the road it is on is very narrow and full of potholes.

Faded promises

Traffic in the Guinean capital, Conakry, is always chaotic and heavy. So what we had here was a sort of militarised traffic jam.

We edged slowly past the anti-aircraft guns and nudged our way through the soldiers. I did not need to encourage my driver to be careful. As a local man, he knew the drill.

Map of Guinea

The defence minister is the number two or three in Guinea's latest military junta. No-one quite knows the hierarchy any more.

The minister is an army general, but the junta is led by a man with a far more junior rank, an army captain called Dadis Camara.

Dadis, as he is known locally, was popular when he first came to power.

He promised a "new broom" purge against corruption and he promised free and fair elections in which he, as a military man, would not stand.

But none of those things look likely now. He has reneged on his promises.

Massacre claims

Broken promises are not new in these parts. But worse, much worse, was to come.

On 28 September 2009, a crowd of pro-democracy activists converged on the national football stadium. They called on Dadis, the junta leader, to stand down.

Then soldiers loyal to the president surrounded the stadium, walked on to the football pitch and the athletics track around it, and proceeded to massacre at least 57, and perhaps as many as 160 or more, unarmed people.

Everyone, apart from the government, agrees that this is what happened.

A woman cries in Conakry, 02/10
It was a straightforward, blatant massacre. No doubt about it. The soldiers shot to kill.

The pro-democracy opposition people agrees this is what happened, of course.

But so do Western and African diplomats, the United Nations, every man and woman on the street I have spoken to, and international human rights investigators.

It was a straightforward, blatant massacre. No doubt about it. The soldiers shot to kill. They raped women systematically. They used knives and planks of wood with rusty nails to finish people off when they ran out of bullets.

So now the world has imposed punitive sanctions to punish the killers. There are arms embargoes imposed by African countries and the European Union. But the regime will not care much about those measures.

The merchants of death will get round arms sanctions. They always do.

Rambo ride

But there are also travel bans on individuals in the regime. And the junta will hate that, as there will be no more business deals in Paris, London or New York.

Almost as soon as the travel bans were announced, more anti-aircraft guns, or "AAs" as they are called here, came out.

A man who is supposedly in charge of presidential security, a man who looks and dresses like an African Rambo, was seen by a friend of mine driving through town in a convoy of seven Toyota Hilux trucks, with three of the big guns lashed on board.

Guinea soldiers arresting protesters (28 Sept 2009)
Soldiers allegedly raped women during the stadium raid

Then our old friend the defence minister was seen by another contact of mine.

He left his big house and took to the road, driving through this city of some two million terrified civilians, with no less than 26 battle wagons with, you have guessed it, at least four AAs strapped on the back.

These armed men do not trust each other, that much is obvious. I wonder if they trust Dadis, the president, and I shudder to think how many anti-aircraft guns he has at his disposal.

The international sanctions have ramped up the pressure. If the United Nations does as it has promised to do, it will investigate, then prosecute, the football stadium killers.

That is all well and good, of course, if it happens. But right now it does not help the innocent people of Guinea.

The very idea that an independent body is shining a torch-light into this place has terrified members of the junta. Who will be sacrificed to the international courts? Who will survive?

The soldiers do not know. So it is time for them to bring out the anti-aircraft guns.

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