Conakry, Guinea – Putschists in Guinea released a group of political opponents of deposed president Alpha Conde on Tuesday, as a regional bloc prepared to discuss the turmoil in the West African nation.
Special forces led by Lt. Col. Mamady Doumbouya staged a coup in the mineral-rich but impoverished country on Sunday and arrested the president, sparking international condemnation.
The 83-year-old president was under fire for perceived authoritarianism, with dozens of opposition activists arrested after a violently disputed election last year.
An AFP journalist saw about 20 prisoners freed from prison in the capital Conakry on Tuesday evening, including prominent opposition activists.
Lawyers representing the detainees said that 79 people had been cleared for release in discussions with the military.
"We pray to God that this is a new era for Guinea. May no Guinean be in prison for the same reasons as us," said Ismael Conde, a recently freed opposition-party activist.
The military released a communique on Monday urging the justice ministry to accelerate the release of "political detainees".
Doumbouya on Tuesday also repeated a pledge to hold talks on forming a new government.
"The government to be installed will be that of national unity and will ensure this political transition," he tweeted.
Sunday's coup triggered broad diplomatic condemnation — including from the United States, European Union, African Union and the West African bloc ECOWAS — with calls for Conde's release.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is due to hold a virtual extraordinary summit to discuss the crisis on Wednesday.
Russia also said it wanted Guinean institutions restored "as soon as possible."
"We expect in any case that the interests of our businessmen … will not be affected," a Kremlin spokesman said.
Public discontent in Guinea had been brewing for months over a flatlining COVID-19-hit economy and the leadership of Conde, who became the first democratically elected president in 2010 and was re-elected in 2015.
But last year, Conde pushed through a new constitution that allowed him to run for a third term in October 2020.
The move sparked mass demonstrations in which dozens of protesters were killed. Conde won the election but the political opposition maintained the poll was a sham.
Doumbouya, hours after taking power, appeared on television and accused the government of "endemic corruption" and of "trampling on citizens' rights."
Conde's whereabouts are currently unknown, although the military has guaranteed his safety.
A video sent to AFP by the putschists on Sunday showed a rumpled-looking Conde sitting on a sofa, in jeans and a partly unbuttoned shirt, surrounded by troops.
He refused to answer a question about whether he was being mistreated.
The military coup was met with jubilation in some parts of Conakry, where residents turned out on the streets to applaud passing soldiers.
Cellou Dalein Diallo, the country's main opposition leader, also backed the move in the hope that it will lead to "a peaceful democracy" in the nation of 13 million people.
On Monday, Diallo's opposition coalition ANAD urged the ruling military to establish "legitimate institutions capable of implementing reforms" and to uphold the rule of law.
Guinea's putschists dissolved the constitution and the government after the coup.
On Tuesday, soldiers began to dismantle police and army roadblocks around the capital, which critics of Conde said had been installed to control protests.
No deaths have been officially reported in the putsch, although reports in Guinean media have suggested that between a dozen and 20 people were killed.
AFP was unable to independently confirm the reports.
In his first public appearance as military leader on Monday, Doumbouya promised that there would be no "witch hunt" against former government members.
Ministers have nonetheless been banned from leaving the country.
Doumbouya has also sought to reassure the business community, alarmed over the potential for disruptions in commodity supply chains.
Mining is the economic backbone of Guinea, which has abundant mineral resources, from bauxite and iron ore to gold and diamonds.
Guinea will continue to uphold "all its undertakings and mining agreements," Doumbouya said.
The coup leader is in his early forties and was trained at France's Ecole de Guerre military academy. He was also a member of the French Foreign Legion.
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