NAIROBI, KENYA (NYTIMES) – United States Green Berets were training local forces in the West African nation of Guinea last weekend when their charges peeled away for a mission not listed in any military training manual: They mounted a coup.
Gunfire rang out as an elite Guinean special forces unit stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Conakry, early on Sunday (Sept 5), deposing the country’s 83-year-old President Alpha Conde.
Hours later, a charismatic young officer, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, 41, announced himself as Guinea’s new leader. The Americans knew him well.
A team of about a dozen Green Berets had been in Guinea since mid-July to train about 100 soldiers in a special forces unit led by Col Doumbouya, who served for years in the French Foreign Legion, took part in US military exercises and was once a close ally of the president he overthrew.
The coup in Guinea, the fourth military takeover in West Africa in 12 months, following two coups in Mali and a disputed succession in Chad, fueled worries of democratic backsliding in a coup-prone region of Africa.
The US, like the United Nations and the African Union, has condemned the coup, and the US military has denied having any advance knowledge of it.
For the Pentagon, though, it is an embarrassment. The US has trained troops in many African nations, largely for counter-terrorism programmes but also with the broad aim of supporting civilian-led governments.
And although numerous US-trained officers have seized power in their countries – most notably, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt – this is believed to be the first time one has done so in the middle of a US military course.
On Sunday, once the Green Berets realised a coup was under way, they drove straight to the US Embassy in Conakry, and the training programme was suspended, said US Africa Command spokesman Kelly Cahalan.
The coup, she said, is “inconsistent with US military training and education”.
US officials seeking to downplay the episode initially stressed that the base where the training took place was in Forecariah, a four-hour drive from the presidential palace, close to Guinea’s border with Sierra Leone.
But on Friday, US officials said they were investigating reports that Doumbouya and his fellow coup-makers had set off in an armed convoy from that same base early on Sunday – raising the prospect that they slipped away while their instructors were sleeping.
“We do not have any information on how the apparent military seizure of power occurred, and had no prior indication of these events,” Ms Bardha S. Azari, also a spokesman for US Africa Command, said in an e-mail.
The discomfort of US officials over their proximity to the coup plotters was made worse by video footage circulating in recent days that showed smiling US military officers in a crowd of joyous Guineans on Sunday, the day of the coup.
As a four-wheel drive vehicle with Guinean soldiers perched on the back pushes through the crowd chanting “Freedom”, one American appears to touch hands with cheering people.
“If the Americans are involved in the putsch, it’s because of their mining interests,” said Conakry teacher Diapharou Balde, in a reference to Guinea’s huge deposits of gold, iron ore and bauxite, which is used to make aluminium.
US officials confirmed that the video showed Green Berets returning to the US Embassy on Sunday but denied it implied support for the coup.
“The US government and military are not involved in this apparent military seizure of power in any way,” said Ms Azari.
Footage that circulated after the coup showed a dishevelled Mr Conde, surrounded by soldiers, slouched on a sofa and looking dejected.
Col Doumbouya has refused to say where he is being held, though envoys from West Africa’s main political and economic bloc met with Mr Conde on Friday and said he was in good health.
The President has been ousted by an officer whose career he once blessed. Col Doumbouya shot to public attention in October 2018 during celebrations for Guinea’s 60th anniversary of independence, when he paraded the country’s newly formed special forces unit through central Conakry.
Images of the parade went viral on Guinean social media. “People were very impressed by the choreography of the soldiers and synchronised movement of their vehicles,” said Dr Issaka K. Souare, director of the Sahel and West Africa programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
US officials have known Col Doumbouya since the start of his rise. A photo posted to the US Embassy Facebook page from October 2018 showed him standing with three US military officials outside the US Embassy.
But on Friday, US officials said they were puzzled why he would choose to mount a coup at a moment when he was working closely with Americans.
It is not the first time that coups in Africa have cast a shadow over US training programmes on the continent.
As insurgents surged across Mali’s northern desert in 2012, US-trained commanders of the country’s elite army units defected at a critical time, taking troops, trucks, weapons and their newfound skills to the enemy.
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