50 Israelis stranded in Guinean capital

Army mutiny by soldiers angered over salary arrears and rising food prices enters its fifth day.

guinea soldier 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
guinea soldier 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Some 50 Israelis were still holed up in a hotel in Guinea's capital, Conakry, on Friday, as an army mutiny by soldiers angered over salary arrears and rising food prices entered its fifth day. The Israelis, who work in infrastructure and communications, have been in contact with the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and several options were being explored in order to bring them home. Israeli Ambassador to Senegal Gidon Bahar, who also deals with Guinea, downplayed concerns in an interview with Army Radio on Friday. "It looks like things are calming down. We have been in constant contact with the Israeli businesspeople. They are fine and in a fortified area," he said. A small number of Israelis managed to fly out to Senegal on Thursday. West African leaders appealed for calm in the country, saying the army mutiny had the potential to destabilize neighboring states struggling to put an era of wars and conflict behind them. The 15-member regional Economic Community of West African States said the crisis "put at risk the safety and security of the civilian population and poses a grave threat to the fragile peace in the entire" region. The Nigeria-based group "appealed to all Guineans to act with a high sense of responsibility and to desist from any actions likely to plunge their country and its neighbors into conflict and instability." The neighboring countries of Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone are each struggling to emerge from long civil wars. Guinea has suffered riots and repeated mutinies under iron-fisted dictator Lansana Conte for years, who took power in a 1984 coup. The ramshackle seaside capital has been tense but calm since Thursday afternoon, when loyalist army Chief of Staff Gen. Diarra Camara called on soldiers taking part in the revolt to return to their barracks. Loyalist presidential guard units with rocket launchers patrolled the city center Friday in armored vehicles. Banks and many shops were closed and streets were deserted. There were no reports of gunfire. Tensions began rising last week when Conte unexpectedly fired Prime Minister Lansana Kouyate, who soldiers said had pledged to pay them back wages and bonuses. Disgruntled junior troops began the mutiny Monday at several military bases on Conakry's outskirts, firing repeatedly into the air and taking the army's second-in-command hostage. No clashes have been reported, but at least 10 people have been wounded by stray bullets fired into the air. The crisis had seemed to be easing Wednesday after the government agreed to meet several key demands, particularly a promise to pay each soldier 5 million Guinean francs - around $1,100 - within days. The government also promised to free soldiers imprisoned in a similar revolt last year and fired the defense minister, who had threatened to prosecute the mutinous soldiers. But gunfire erupted again as mutinying soldiers expressed concern their demands would not really be met. The mutineers are also calling for the country's top generals to resign, saying they are corrupt and have blocked lower-ranking officers from receiving promotions. The soldiers also want the already-subsidized price of rice for the military, recently raised, to be reduced. Loyalist units and the mutineers had faced off against each other Thursday on a strategic bridge in the city. They fired into the air, but did shoot at one another. Conte, the septuagenarian dictator, agreed to appoint Kouyate - seen as a reformer - last year after intense union protests over his autocratic rule turned deadly and threatened to overturn the government. Conte's grip on power depends largely on the loyalty of the army, and the government has previously given in to soldiers' demands for pay increases when they have threatened violence - though the actual pay-outs have rarely come through. Guinea, located on Africa's western coast, has vast reserves of timber, gold, diamonds and bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum. Yet it is consistently listed as one of the world's poorest countries - a testament to misrule by the elite.