CONAKRY, Guinea – Guinea's Health Minister on Friday denied reports that this West African nation's No. 2 leader was heading to Senegal to be hospitalized, rejecting rumors he was being evacuated for a medical emergency.
The confusion over Vice President and Defense Minister Gen. Sekouba Konate's health underscores just how much Guinea is on edge. The country has been in limbo since its junta leader was shot last month in an assassination attempt and evacuated to a military hospital in Morocco.
Guinea Health Minister Abdoulaye Cherif Diaby said over state radio that Konate was heading to Senegal's capital, Dakar, "for an official visit, but he is not sick. He's doing well."
Bamba Ndiaye, a spokesman for Senegal's president, also said the trip due late Friday had nothing to do with any illness. He told The Associated Press Konate would meet President Abdoulaye Wade but called it "a private visit for consultations."
Earlier, two officials told The Associated Press Konate was being taken to Senegal and suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The contradictory reports came as some Guineans are questioning whether the country's wounded junta leader, Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara, will ever return to the helm of the mineral-rich nation. Opposition and union leaders have demanded more details about his condition and have even threatened to go on strike if an information blackout continues.
The rumors that Konate, too, could be hospitalized came two days after he announced a new civilian-led transition government will be put in place in Camara's absence.
On Friday, Guinea's opposition coalition met Friday to discuss naming an opposition prime minister to govern the country in a transition government.
Guinea has been effectively leaderless since Camara was airlifted to a Moroccan military hospital following the assassination attempt Dec. 3. Although Konate had been coordinating the junta's activities, the government had repeatedly declined to refer to him as the interim president, sowing fears of a power vacuum.
Konate visited Camara in Morocco last week and said he would recover but that it would take time. Camara has not been seen in public since the attack, leading many to speculate he is in a coma.
Guinea has been ruled by strongmen for decades. Camara seized power in a December 2008 coup, hours after the death of longtime dictator Lansana Conte.
Camara promised to quickly hand over power to civilians in elections in which he would not run. But he began dropping hints that he planned to run after all, prompting a massive pro-democracy protest in the capital in September. Human rights groups say soldiers killed at least 157 demonstrators and raped dozens of women.
A recent report by U.N. investigators on Guinea said there was sufficient reason to believe that Camara was directly responsible for the mass killings and rapes. Konate — the vice president and minister of defense — was away from Conakry during the slaughter.
The shocking display of brutality prompted the European and the African Unions to impose sanctions on Guinea, including an arms embargo and a travel ban and asset freeze on top members of the junta.
The man who shot Camara, Lt. Abubakar "Toumba" Diakite, remains in hiding. He said last month that he shot the junta leader because Camara wanted him to take the blame for the September massacre.
Konate has cast himself as Camara's closest ally, but also has been his archrival.
When Camara's men declared him leader of the 32-member junta in December 2008, the better-known Konate — who then headed an elite unit of specially trained commandos — did not even figure on the list.
A witness at the main barracks said Konate initially challenged Camara over the presidency, which led to Konate, Camara and a third officer agreeing to draw lots from a mayonnaise jar to settle who would get to be president. Camara won but disputed the mayonnaise-jar story, saying soldiers threatened him and Konate with death unless they agreed to lead the country.
Konate was named a vice president, and in the space of a year moved up the military ranks from colonel to general, while his boss remained a captain. Since Camara took power, Konate, who towers over his slight-framed boss, has been a constant presence at Camara's side.