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Angry Chaos in Guinea

Demonstrations in Guinea have continued for the third day

Frustrated youths took to the crumbling streets of Guinea’s capital, Conakry, for the third day in a row on Tuesday, throwing stones and setting tires on fire in escalating protests over high gas prices.

The demonstrations, and the violent reaction they have provoked from the country’s security forces, have heightened tensions in a country that has been teetering on the brink of mass unrest for two years.

Witnesses said that at least one person was killed Monday when government troops shot at demonstrators, according to Reuters. But movement has been severely restricted in Conakry, and human rights advocates and aid groups fear that the toll is considerably higher.

“What is clear is there is a tremendous amount of frustration and anger in Guinea,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. “People protest to express that anger, and security forces respond with excessive force.”

On the surface the protests are about fuel prices, which have remained forbiddingly high despite slumping crude oil prices. The government announced on Saturday that it would reduce gas prices by 20 percent, to the equivalent of about $4.15 a gallon from more than $5, to quell simmering anger over the high cost of living, but Guineans had been expecting a deeper cut because crude oil prices had fallen more than 50 percent.

But Guinea’s problems go much deeper than expensive gas. The country, a former French colony, is one of West Africa’s longest festering sores, a holdover from a recent era when autocrats ruled the region and civil wars raged over the spoils of diamonds, gold and other riches. It is the world’s top exporter of bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made, but it is also one of the world’s poorest nations.

Its president, Lansana Conté, has ruled Guinea since 1984. Now in his 70s, he is in poor health and has made frequent trips abroad in recent years for medical treatment. As his health has declined, so have his country’s fortunes.

The government brutally suppressed a general strike early last year led by the country’s trade unions. As many as 200 people were killed, and human rights groups documented dozens of cases of beatings, torture and unlawful imprisonment in the crackdown. Mr. Conté agreed to some changes, bringing in a reform-minded prime minister with wider powers.

But the reforms did not take. Little more than a year later, Mr. Conté fired the prime minister and appointed a close ally in his place.

In May, frustrated soldiers mutinied over back pay and miserable living conditions, taking the army’s second in command as a hostage until their demands were met. Frustrated police officers later stopped working as well.

The unrest within the security apparatus, which Mr. Conté had controlled firmly, raised fears of a possible coup. Legislative elections that were supposed to open up the country’s political system have repeatedly been postponed.

“The mutiny by soldiers, unrest within the national police and strike action by customs officials are symptoms of the disintegration of the state and its incapacity to provide security,” said an analysis by the International Crisis Group published in June.