CONAKRY, Guinea — A military crackdown on protesters in a remote Guinean town this week left three people dead and dozens more wounded, while at least three women were raped by soldiers, witnesses alleged Thursday. A defense official denied soldiers shot civilians, but the incident still added to concerns about Guinea's army, which already has been implicated in a massacre and systematic rape in a country struggling to transition to democracy.
The crackdown occurred in the town of Gueckedou, located 700 kilometers (430 miles) southeast of Guinea's capital, Conakry. Thousands of demonstrators there were calling for the resignation of a top regional official, and the army trucked in soldiers to disperse the protesters Tuesday.
Witnesses said the army opened fire first with tear gas, then with live rounds.
"I can confirm that three bodies were logged into the register at the prefecture's hospital in Gueckedou. The bodies have been buried. The wounded are still arriving. Some with stab wounds. Some with bullet wounds," said Sayon Teliano, a local health worker who was called to the hospital to help. Speaking Thursday, with soldiers still in the town, Teliano said the forensic report found that the three people who died were struck by bullets.
Retired army Col. Kamano Faro, who resides in Gueckedou, said the army used the protest as a pretext to brutalize the town. He said along with the three dead, at least 103 people were hurt, and dozens of boutiques and stores were pillaged.
"The army brought terror to our town," Faro said. "In the neighborhood of Nongo, I saw soldiers going into people's houses and breaking things. "I saw them grab the pots off of people's fires, and eat the rice and the sauce that was inside. I know a pork seller, who was robbed of all his money. They even took his pig, and slaughtered it (to eat)."
Guinea, a nation of 10.2 million, spent much of its post-independence history under various types of military rule, starting with a 1984 coup by an army colonel, Lansana Conte. He died in office in 2008; hours later an army captain seized power.
In 2009, when tens of thousands of demonstrators crowded into the national soccer stadium in Conakry to demand the army relinquish control, the captain's elite red beret-wearing guard sealed the gates to the stadium. They then opened fire with machine guns, mowing down the protesters – killing at least 157.
Women were also dragged onto the stadium turf, into the stands, under bleachers, and in neighboring structures and gang-raped by officers who stuffed their red berets into their mouths to silence them, a scene shocking even for this troubled region of Africa.
Rape was allegedly another tactic used by the armed forces during this week's crackdown.
Gueckedou resident Mariam Bayo said she was in the neighborhood of Kango at home when the soldiers arrived Tuesday. They began firing tear gas, and she ran as fast as she could to get away. She saw the soldiers grab one of her neighbors, a young woman around 20 years old.
"It happened in front of me. They started firing the tear gas. I ran. So did the girl. Later, I went to her house to see if she was OK. They had raped her. She's wounded, but we are too afraid to go out, so we are trying to treat her at home," Bayo said.
Sia Mama, another resident, described the rape of a female relative.
"She had gone outside to get water from the well. The soldiers were there and they saw her and forced her back into the house," Mama said. "They raped her right in front of her husband."
Karine Kamano, a local community activist, said in one neighborhood, soldiers chased after a teen age girl, catching her and pinning her down. Her injuries from the rape were severe enough that her family reached out to Kamano for help.
"I'm the one that arranged to take her to the hospital," she said.
Reached late Thursday, the minister in charge of defense, Abdoul Kabele Camara, denied that the military had shot civilians. "That's totally false. Not a single soldier fired a single shot at Gueckedou. The police and the gendarmes were in charge of maintaining order. Those three people who died there, they were killed by other protesters," he said.
A communique read on state radio Thursday said a government delegation traveled to Gueckedou and met with community leaders in an effort to calm the situation. The government has not released an official version of what happened.
Guinea held its first-ever democratic election in 2010, after the army finally ceded power to civilians following the intense international condemnation of the Sept. 28, 2009 stadium massacre. But progress has been slow to come. And despite having the world's largest supply of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum, as well as steel, diamonds, gold and timber, Guinea's people remain mired in poverty.
One of the fundamental problems is a lack of accountability for the army. All of the soldiers implicated in the 2009 massacre remain at-large. And a colonel named by Human Rights Watch and U.N. investigators as a principal aggressor in the rapes and killings has continued to hold an important government post, despite scores of victims who saw him at the stadium.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.