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Coup leaders seize SUVs from loyalist

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CONAKRY, Guinea — Dozens of soldiers supporting last week's coup in Guinea forced their way into the compound of a close confidant of the country's late dictator Monday, the official said, in a show of force against a powerful figure in the previous regime.

The heavily armed men burst through a gate and demanded that Mamadou Sylla hand over the keys to several sport utility vehicles allegedly stolen from the government, Sylla said. It was the second time the military junta has used intimidating force in dealing with key supporters of strongman Lansana Conte, whose death last week touched off the coup.

The raid occurred just hours after the African Union froze Guinea's membership in the continentwide bloc, threatening further sanctions if the junta doesn't restore constitutional order.

The AU said it was giving the coup leaders six months to restore constitutional rule. "We will not accept that the coup d'etat sticks in Guinea," said AU Chairman Patrick Sinyinza.

Coup leader Capt. Moussa Camara, 44, has won overwhelming public approval. His popularity is rooted in the promise that he will hold democratic elections and publicly punish those who stole goods or money from the state. For the past 24 years, Guinea's state coffer has been repeatedly pillaged by officials loyal to Conte.

But the junta has shown signs of moving toward tougher tactics against former regime members and supporters, such as the armed raids on Sylla's compound on Monday and the home of one of Conte's powerful generals on Sunday.

"Why would you want to break down the door when the door is wide open?" Sylla asked in an interview with The Associated Press. He said the heavily armed soldiers frightened his aides, who cowered inside the compound, not knowing if they were about to be attacked.

Sylla handed over the keys to the six new SUVs that the soldiers claimed had belonged to the state. But he said his company, Futurelec S.A., had been contracted to provide the military with over 150 cars. While he did not explain why the six cars had not been delivered, he said the coup leaders should have called him rather than raid his compound.

Sylla was among Conte's closest friends. He was believed to have the ability to remove a member of government simply by voicing his disapproval to the head of state.

The building the soldiers raided on Monday was said to be the only civilian residence that the reclusive Conte visited in the last years of his rule.

Sylla has been repeatedly accused of corruption, and in late 2006 he was jailed along with an official of the Central Bank on charges of stealing $3 million by inflating the price of cars supplied to government officials and pocketing the difference. Conte personally went to the jail to free the men, setting off deadly demonstrations that nearly brought down the regime.

Conte himself was a soldier who took power in a coup after his predecessor, Guinea's first president died in 1984.

He paid lip service to the wave of democracy that swept West Africa getting himself elected in ballots riddled with irregularities in 1993, 1998 and 2003. But he had refused to go to the electorate since 2006, when the mandate of the current parliament expired. That has prompted many to say that Guinea cannot abide by the constitution — as the AU is requiring.

The constitution calls for the head of parliament to become president, but since the parliament is obsolete, few see that choice as legitimate.

Although the African Union had harsh words for the coup, it appeared it may be out of step with Guinea's closest neighbors. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States, a regional group, has said the coup leaders should be given a chance.

Camara plans to woo international delegations invited to the capital on Tuesday to hear his arguments.

Among those reportedly eager to engage him is Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who starts a four-day state visit to Guinea's neighbor, Sierra Leone, on Tuesday from where he plans to engage the junta's leadership.

Guinea has long been called a "geological scandal" because of its abundance of gold, diamonds, iron, timber and half the world's reserves of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum. But as its ruling clique stole from the state coffer, parading around the capital in the latest Hummer, its people fell deeper and deeper into poverty.