CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) - Guinea's president survived an assassination attempt Tuesday after gunmen encircled his home overnight and pounded it with heavy-artillery, 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 awoken by the shooting, which erupted around his residence between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. A rocket-propelled grenade landed inside the compound, destroying a part of the house, and one of his bodyguards was killed while several others were wounded, said Francois Louceny Fall, a minister at the presidency who acts as Conde's chief of staff.
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 population 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.
Just hours later, shooting broke out again near his home and residents said they saw the red-beret-wearing presidential guard take fighting positions. While it remains unclear who was behind the first coordinated attack, the second was led by a fighter dubbed 'De Gaulle' who was a bodyguard of the country's former military strongman and who was arrested at the scene, said Fall.
"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."
Soldiers fanned out across this 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 say.
"It just shows the fragility of the country," said Guinea-based election expert Elizabeth Cote of the International Foundation for Election Systems, who worked for years overseeing voter registration and training of poll workers ahead of last year's election. "It's hard to brand what just happened, but hopefully it can be a wake-up call," she 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, the captain's 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.
De Gaulle, the soldier arrested in the second attack on the president's home, is Camara's former bodyguard.
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 elections organized in 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.
The fact that most people live in poverty in Guinea is a source of dark irony because the nation is rich in iron, gold, diamonds and has 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.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe spoke by telephone Tuesday with Conde to express France's support for him. "The return of democracy to Guinea ... constitutes an example for Africa," a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Political insiders say that Conde's relationship with the military is strained and that 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 and taken in for questioning.
"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."
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