Guinea’s hated coup leader organizes ethnic militia trained by white contractors

By Rukmini Callimachi, AP
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Civil war feared in Guinea as militia grows

FORECARIAH, Guinea — Up a dirt road inside the thick forest here, many fear the seeds of Africa’s next civil war are being sown.

Beyond two heavily guarded checkpoints is a sprawling camp, where white contractors are giving military training to an estimated 1,500 to 4,000 men from one of Guinea’s smallest ethnic groups. The trainees, say a camp employee, a government official and several diplomats, are almost all Guerze, the tribe of Guinea’s troubled leader.

The camp is one more sign of the growing instability in this West African nation of 10 million, where president Capt. Moussa “Dadis” Camara was shot at and lightly wounded by his own presidential guard on Thursday. Isolated and increasingly fearful for his safety, Camara appears to be tapping the dangerous sentiment of tribal allegiance in a bid to hold onto power.

Dictators have used such tactics throughout the continent, in some cases plunging countries into civil war. War in Guinea could also spread across the region along ethnic lines, because Guinea shares its largest ethnic group, the Peul, with five neighboring countries.

“We worry that he is recruiting and training this ethnic militia so that it can carry out blows below the belt,” said Mamadou Baadikko, president of the Union of Democratic Forces, an opposition party. “If this doesn’t stop, the risk of civil war is real.”

The 45-year-old Camara led a military coup last December, hours after the death of former strongman Lansana Conte. His first speeches were stirring, promising to crack down on corruption in the dirt-poor country and to hold elections in which he would not run. Many hoped he would reach out beyond his immediate clan because it makes up just 0.05 percent of the population, and because he is Christian in an 85 percent Muslim country.

But nearly all the top ministries were handed to men from his ethnicity. And only a few months later, Camara, 45, began hinting that he planned to run for office.

When opposition leaders led a rally on Sept. 28 to demand he step down, the presidential guard opened fire on the thousands of protesters, killing at least 157. Witnesses say the protesters were mostly Peul, while the soldiers who attacked them were overwhelmingly ‘forestier,’ the ethnic groups from Guinea’s forested southeast, including the Guerze.

It was just a few weeks before the massacre that residents of Forecariah, a dusty town 80 miles south of the country’s capital, began seeing buses arrive loaded with young men who spoke only forestier dialects.

Most mornings since then, the young recruits have been seen running a 5-mile loop through the villages surrounding the town, chanting pro-Dadis slogans. Leading them, residents say, are muscular white men with buzzed haircuts.

The training camp for the militia is inside the former campus of the national gendarmerie academy in the village of Kalia, 2½ miles up a dirt road from Forecariah, said a camp employee who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. He said that in mid-summer, the academy’s director and staff were replaced by men from the president’s ethnic group.

Eighty percent of the recruits, he said, are Guerze. The rest are from the related forestier tribes. Only a handful are from the country’s major ethnicities, including the Peul, which make up 40 percent of the population, and the Soussou, which account for 20 percent.

“The president has brought to this camp only people from his own ethnicity,” the employee said. “Why? The president is supposed to be here to protect all Guineans. So why are there only people here from his ethnic group?”

The man said white mercenaries are leading combat drills, including use of automatic weapons and commando tactics. When asked where they come from, they answer “from another country,” he told the AP.

Local residents said the foreign trainers were staying at the Hotel Bafila in Forecariah. On a recent evening, about a dozen white men were inside the hotel’s restaurant, speaking English and two other languages which sounded like Hebrew and Afrikaans. Several wore black T-shirts that said “Instructor” on the back.

When an AP reporter asked for a room, the hotel staff went to find a white man with short gray hair in an instructor T-shirt. He placed what looked like a canister of mace on the table in front of the reporter, tapped it and asked if she had taken any photographs, which he said was forbidden. He said the entire hotel and a second one nearby had been totally booked by “a company.”

Parked outside were several four-wheel drive vehicles and a large bus with license plates beginning with “AG,” designated for the “Armee Guineene,” French for the Guinean Army. Locals say the bus ferries the men to and from the camp.

Idrissa Cherif, the junta’s minister of communication, said media reports that mercenaries are in Guinea are “lies.” He said Israelis are at the camp in Kalia on an official mission to train the Guinean army.

“Yes, there are Israeli citizens here,” Cherif said. “They are training our army … why do they want to tarnish the image of my country by calling them mercenaries?”

But the Israeli government said no permits have been issued to Israeli companies or individuals to operate in the security sector in Guinea. “Those doing so are acting in violation of Israeli law and may face criminal charges in Israel,” said Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Israel has a long history of sending mercenaries to African countries, dating back to the 1950s. But now Israel’s Defense Ministry supervises military exports, including training by private contractors.

The team is led by Daniel Oosthuizen, an 18-year South African police veteran, according to The Star, a Johannesburg newspaper, which cited unnamed sources. The paper said the trainers were sent to Guinea by a Dubai-based company called Omega Strategic Services.

When the AP called the Hotel Bafila and asked to speak to Oosthuizen, the operator said: “He hasn’t come back from the camp yet.” Telephone calls to the Dubai office of OSS and mobile numbers listed on the company’s Web site went unanswered. The Web site lists Oosthuizen as its director of operations.

Cherif denied South African trainers are in Guinea, but the South African government said it is investigating. South African foreign ministry official Ayanda Ntsaluba noted that South African law prohibits its citizens from serving in foreign armies without first getting government permission.

It’s unclear if the militia has already been put to use. Opposition leaders say they received calls from Forecariah on Sept. 27, saying buses full of young men had left the town, headed for the capital. The next day, the presidential guard

surrounded the capital’s soccer stadium where protesters had gathered and sealed off the exits. When they entered, they emptied their AK-47s into the crowd, according to numerous witnesses. Dozens of women and girls were raped, including with rifle butts, sticks and knives.

Witnesses said the aggressors were mainly the presidential guard, identifiable by their red berets. But several said the assailants included young men dressed as civilians and who spoke a dialect they did not understand.

The violence had a strong ethnic dimension. Survivors said the presidential guard taunted the protesters with cries of “We will exterminate the Peul.” Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said 20 out of the 27 rape victims she interviewed were Peul, who are recognizable by their lighter skin.

Even those who happen to look like Peul were targeted. A 40-year-old light-skinned Soussou woman told the AP that red berets ripped off her shirt and jeans when a soldier told the others, “Stop hurting her, she’s not a Peul.”

Peul journalists have fled the country. Peul opposition leaders have had their homes ransacked, and several say they narrowly survived assassination attempts. And those close to Camara say he has warned that he would never allow the Peul to take power.

Diplomats, experts and opposition leaders said the targeting is especially dangerous because the Peul span the region.

“May God help us because what he is doing is dragging us to the rim of a civil war,” said a top member of the military junta, who does not agree with Camara’s ethnic politics but said he could not be identified for fear of persecution. “And if we — Guinea — fall into a civil war, it will drag in the entire region, from Senegal to Liberia, to Sierra Leone to Mali.”

Fearing for their safety, several Peul families have tried to enlist their sons in the militia to protect them.

The day after the massacre, Alpha Diallo drove his 16-year-old son to the capital’s military barracks. They were waved away when the officer saw the boy’s last name, a typical Peul name. The father said he then contacted a member of the junta, who agreed to enlist his son in exchange for a bribe.

Last month, the recruits boarded a military truck, but just before reaching the Kalia camp they were told to get down. Only those with forestier last names were allowed back on.

The father complained to the officer who had taken the bribe. The officer warned that they could only get the boy into the camp if he agreed to change his name.

Associated Press writer Donna Bryson in Johannesburg and Michael Barajas in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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