The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone flew to neighbouring Guinea on Tuesday for talks on how to prevent its violent political unrest from destabilising their own states.
Liberian head of state Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone were due to meet Guinean President Lansana Conte, who declared martial law on February 12 to quell a popular insurrection against his 23-year-rule.
Officials said they would discuss border cooperation and regional security concerns, including reports that Liberian ex-rebels were being recruited to fight in Guinea if the crisis in the West African state descended into all-out civil war.
More than 120 people, mostly unarmed civilians, have been killed since the beginning of the year in Guinea in clashes between security forces and protesters led by unions demanding that Conte, a reclusive diabetic in his 70s, cede power.
Although draconian martial law measures have restored calm to the world’s leading bauxite exporter, analysts have warned the Guinean unrest could suck in and destabilise neighbouring states in one of Africa’s most volatile regions.
”President [Johnson-Sirleaf] is very much concerned about the situation in Guinea and wants to see how she, along with Kabbah, can help bring peace and reconciliation to that sister country,” a spokesperson for the Liberian president said.
Liberia and Sierra Leone, which together with Guinea make up the Manu River Union regional group, are trying to recover from brutal civil wars lasting more than a decade, which involved some rebel groups that were backed by Conte.
The Guinean leader used the groups as a defensive bulwark against these conflicts, which raged on his southern frontier until a few years ago.
Guinean officials said a delegation from the West African regional bloc Ecowas, which held talks with Conte at the weekend, had warned of possible attacks by former Liberian rebels on Guinea’s south-east border with Liberia.
”We have to avoid a situation where bandits or rebels can take advantage or create instability in Guinea … maybe there are people in Liberia who want to cause problems,” Ecowas executive secretary Mohamed Ibn Chambas said in Conakry on Saturday.
Several thousand ex-rebels from Liberia and Sierra Leone still live in Guinea, especially in the hilly, thickly wooded south-east Forestiere region, which borders these countries.
As Guinean soldiers have struggled to contain the violent anti-Conte protests at home, rumours have surfaced that former fighters of the Liberian ex-rebel group Lurd were being recruited to help the Guinean president maintain control.
Guinea’s military have categorically denied this, but the rumours of recruitment of Liberians have persisted.
Johnson-Sirleaf called for any such recruitment to cease, her spokesperson said.
”She is calling on Liberians to desist from supporting any group that will further exacerbate the situation,” spokesperson Charles Nelson said in Monrovia.
”No Liberian should allow himself to be recruited. This president is interested in seeing lasting peace in Guinea,” he added in an official statement.
Conte’s Guinea had sheltered and armed the Lurd (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) rebels who fought against former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor.
North-western neighbour Guinea-Bissau, whose President Joao Bernardo ”Nino” Vieira is a personal friend of Conte, has also denied sending troops to help him stay in power. — Reuters