Guinea's president narrowly survived an assassination attempt Tuesday after gunmen surrounded his home overnight and pounded his bedroom with rockets, throwing into doubt the stability of the country's first democratically elected government in a part of the world that has long been ruled by the gun.
President Alpha Conde was saved because he was sleeping in a different room when the shooting erupted outside his residence at around 3 a.m. Rocket-propelled grenades landed inside the compound and one of his bodyguards was killed, said Francois Louceny Fall, Conde's chief of staff. The bedroom was ripped apart, Conde said in an interview with French radio RFI.
The 73-year-old Conde later addressed the nation on state radio, saying his security detail had "heroically fought starting at 3:10 a.m. until reinforcements arrived." He urged the public to remain calm and said the attack would not derail the promises he made to voters seven months ago when he became the first democratically elected leader in Guinea's 52-year history.
"If your hand is in the hand of God, nothing can happen to you. ... Our enemies can try everything, but they will not stop the march of the Guinean people," Conde said in his address. "Guinea is one country. We are united, for we cannot grow if we are not united. Let us not accept to be divided."
Just hours later, shooting broke out again near his home and residents say they saw the red-beret-wearing presidential guards take fighting positions.
Conde was inside meeting with the French ambassador and the diplomat was forced to lay on the floor to avoid the bullets, the president said on RFI. A bodyguard who was close to the last two military leaders and who goes by the nickname "De Gaulle" was arrested attempting to pierce the police cordon around the house, Fall told The Associated Press by telephone.
Soldiers fanned out across the capital city, located on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean on Africa's western coast. They tied ropes between trees at intersections, and traffic was at a standstill as each car was stopped and drivers were told to open their trunks. Military helicopters circled overhead. Shops and schools were closed.
Tens of millions of dollars were invested by the international community to ensure last year's transparent vote, and a coup would be a major setback for the region, analysts said.
"It just shows the fragility of the country," said Guinea-based election expert Elizabeth Cote of the International Foundation for Election Systems.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe spoke by telephone Tuesday with Conde to express his nation's support, his ministry said in a statement. "The return of democracy to Guinea ... constitutes an example for Africa," Juppe said.
Until last year, Guinea was one of the continent's failed states, a country with an abominable human rights record whose destiny was determined not by the ballot box but by the mood of officers inside the capital's barracks.
The first coup in 1984 brought a colonel who ruled until his death 24 years later. After his death in 2008, another coup brought an army captain to power known for his frightening temper and his taste for televised interrogations of opponents. Capt. Moussa 'Dadis' Camara was deposed a year later when his bodyguard shot him in the head.
In between, his men led a massacre of pro-democracy protesters whose bodies were buried in mass graves, according to Human Rights Watch. Women who had dared question military rule were gang-raped by soldiers who silenced their cries by stuffing their red berets in their mouths.
It took the world by surprise when the general who then seized power in the final month of 2009 agreed to hand over the country to civilians in the elections that occurred last November.
It should have been a proud moment, but the vote itself was marred by days of ethnic violence pitting Conde's supporters _ who are Malinke like him _ against the Peul, the ethnic group of the defeated candidate.
Frustration has grown since then because Conde has failed to create an inclusive government, instead stacking it with members of his ethnicity, and because the country's grinding poverty has not yet been alleviated despite Guinea's considerable mineral wealth, which includes the world's largest supply of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum.
Country watchers had long predicted that holding a democratic vote would be only a first step in ending the army's stranglehold on Guinea. The bigger question is how the new leader relates to the military, whose members had total control of state affairs and who saw their privileges diminished by the election of a civilian president.
Yale University anthropologist Michael McGovern, an expert on Guinea, said the country's military quadrupled in size during the final years of the military regime. It went from 10,000 to over 40,000, he said, as each strongman launched recruitment drives aimed at filling the ranks with their ethnic kin. The bloated army has become not only a security risk, but also an enormous drain on the budget.
Conde told RFI on Tuesday that before he took office some soldiers took home a salary of 200 to 300 million Guinean francs ($30,000 to $45,000). "Obviously there are some people that will not be happy but we can't kill our country," he told the radio station, indicating that his attempts to rein in the military could be behind the thwarted coup attempt.
Meanwhile the ethnic tensions that were revealed by the vote are only getting worse. Among the first people to be fired when Conde won the election was the head of the army, Gen. Nouhou Thiam _ a Peul. On Tuesday, a military official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media confirmed that Thiam had been arrested alongside De Gaulle, former bodyguard to both Camara and the general that succeeded him.
"Military violence is something that deeply frightens us," said Sidya Toure, who came in third in last year's vote. "We lived through this in '08, and again in '09. What it shows is that apparently there is a problem. There are things that remain unfinished."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal and Elaine Ganley from Paris.
(This version CORRECTS Removes 'heavy-artillery' from first paragraph, changes to 'rockets.' Adds name of arrested bodyguard. Corrects spelling mistake. Adds link to crackdown on corruption, soldier's salaries.)