More than 20 people were killed in Guinea on Monday in clashes between protesters and security forces who opened fire to disperse them on the most violent day so far of a general strike against President Lansana Conte.
A doctor at the Donka Hospital in Conakry said 17 people were killed by gunfire in the capital, while a senior local government official said six other people were killed in the northeastern towns of Kankan and Siguiri.
Officials said at least 150 people were wounded.
“I’ve never seen a situation like this since I’ve been a doctor. The majority of the victims appear to have been directly shot at,” said the doctor, who asked not to be named. Gunfire was heard outside the hospital as he spoke.
Shooting broke out in the city center and outlying neighborhoods of the sprawling capital as violence escalated on the 13th day of the strike launched by unions accusing Conte of being unfit to rule the West African country.
Strike leaders want the president, a reclusive diabetic in his 70s, to step aside in favor of a consensus government.
A police source said army units, including members of the presidential guard wearing red berets, fired into the air to disperse protesters trying to march towards the city center via a major road bridge.
While most of the deaths appeared to have occurred when police fired to disperse marching protesters, witnesses said two people were killed when police shot at one group trying to break into a shuttered shop in the Madina neighborhood.
Riot police armed with tear gas and automatic rifles sealed off the city center.
The strike turned violent last week and although casualty figures have been confused, at least eight people had already been killed in clashes between protesters and police.
Ban laments ‘excessive use of force’
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern about what he called the “excessive use of force resulting in the loss of life in clashes in Guinea.”
“The Secretary-General calls on the government of Guinea to exercise maximum restraint on its security forces, and urges the parties to engage in dialogue in order to find a peaceful resolution to the dispute,” his spokeswoman said in New York.
The strike has disrupted the mining industry in Guinea, the world’s biggest exporter of bauxite from which aluminum is extracted.
Strike supporters, some shouting “We want change!”, took to the streets of several parts of Conakry on Monday.
“The marchers have four bloody bodies with them and they say they’re heading for the town center. There are thousands,” said one resident of the Dixinn area, asking not to be named.
In the past few days Conte has been staying at the central Samory Toure military base instead of his usual residence.
Seeking a solution
The latest unrest flared as religious leaders, union chiefs and government representatives struggled to negotiate a solution to the strike, which has paralyzed public transport and shut government offices, schools, shops and markets.
Strike leaders say Conte, who has ruled Guinea since seizing power in a 1984 coup, has become increasingly erratic.
They cite repeated scares about his health, sudden and chaotic cabinet reshuffles and his personal intervention to free from jail two former allies accused of graft.
Conte appealed on Sunday for the people and the army to unite behind him.
He has offered some concessions and sacked his closest government ally in a bid to appease the strikers, but union leaders say this is not enough.
“This has become a popular uprising. We’re not in control of it,” said union negotiator Ousmane Souare.