ECOWAS suspends Guinea until democracy restored

ABUJA (Reuters) – The West African regional bloc ECOWAS said on Saturday it was suspending Guinea until the military junta which seized power last month held elections and returned the world's top bauxite exporter to democratic rule.

The rebuke from Guinea’s neighbours follows a similar move by the African Union, which suspended the former French colony last month, and calls by major donors including the United States and the European Union for elections as soon as possible.

"ECOWAS suspends Guinea from all meetings of ECOWAS at heads of state and ministerial levels until constitutional order is restored," ECOWAS Commission President Mohamed Ibn Chambas told a meeting of leaders of the 15-member regional body in Abuja.

But he said ECOWAS would maintain "a permanent and constructive dialogue" with the junta and other stakeholders in Guinea to ensure the quick organisation of democratic polls.

The National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD) — a junta led by young army captain Moussa Dadis Camara — seized power in Guinea on December 23 after the death of autocratic President Lansana Conte, who had ruled since 1984.

It has appointed a civilian transition government and promised elections in 2010.

But Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who endorsed the coup leaders, has suggested polls could be held earlier, while French secretary of state for cooperation Alain Joyandet has said Camara had agreed to hold polls within 12 months.

Ibn Chambas said last month that the junta’s original plan for elections in 2010 was "not acceptable" and that a two-year transition period was too long.  

FORMER COMMANDERS RELEASED

The junta released two former senior military commanders it detained after the coup, officials said on Saturday, but it warned older retired officers not to try to seize power.

Former armed forces chief of staff General Diarra Camara, who had initially opposed the December 23 coup, and a former navy chief, Admiral Aly Daffe, were detained several days ago by soldiers on the orders of the ruling junta.

Both men, and a colonel who was also held, were released on Friday, a senior police official and a navy officer, who both asked not be named, told Reuters.

Junta leader Camara addressed a large assembly of military officers and troops on Friday and warned against attempted rebellions in the ranks.

"Among us, among our older members, there are some who still have a thirst for power," Camara told the meeting at Conakry’s Alpha Yaya Diallo military base. Helicopters flew overhead and elite troops watched from the rooftops.

The ruling junta, which consists of mostly younger middle-ranking officers, has ordered the retirement of more than 20 older generals. It also named two of its members to head the defence and security ministries.

Guinea’s military was a pillar of support for Conte but has staged a series of bloody mutinies over pay and is accused of human rights abuses. Rights groups say soldiers killed dozens of civilians in early 2007 to crush anti-government protests.

A spokesman for the junta, which shortly after the coup made Capt. Camara its president and Guinea’s de facto leader, defended the arrests of military officers and some civilians suspected of planning to oppose the coup.

"We’ll only attack those who try to challenge authority, and those who embezzle public resources," Demba Fadiga said.