By Bampia J. Bundu
Ex-combatants/servicemen, who were once described as wounded-in-action (WIAs) and mentally retarded, yesterday attacked, beat up and stripped half-naked the Minister of Defence, Rtd Major Paolo Conteh, in the full view of the offices of the Vice President, NEC Building and State House at State Avenue.
The incident, which saw the Defence Minister flee for his life, started at about 11: o’ clock in the morning when the ex-servicemen stormed the aforementioned junctions to form road blocks in protest of non-payment of their overdue benefits. The Minister of Defence, in his wisdom, decided to confront the aggrieved protesters in order to address and calm them down.
Standing in the midst of the protesters, together with his personal security, Paolo explained that the government and his ministry were treating the matter with seriousness and urgency, as they were working on modalities to effect payment as soon as possible. He revealed that his ministry has submitted the list of WIAs to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development and they were working on it. However, he said they were going to pay only WIAs and the government has decided not to pay those that were not in that category.
The Defence minister was doing well until he pronounced the bombshell.
“However, I cannot assure you of an exact date that you will receive your money, but I can assure you that we will surely pay you your money, as the Ministry of Finance is presently looking for funds to pay you,” he said.
The minister’s statement apparently provoked the ex-servicemen to anger and they suddenly pounced on him and scolded him, following with slaps and punches and ultimately tearing his jacket into pieces. At some point in the struggle, the minister was pushed to the ground but he was strong enough to stand his ground. Eventually, with belated help of his security, the minister took to his heels to safety at his ministry’s building half naked. Simultaneously, a plain clothes bodyguard fired a pistol shot to the sky in order to scare away the irate ex-combatants.
Meanwhile, according to some of the ex-combatants who spoke to AYV, the minister should not have faced them as he had once described them as mad people and has also said on air that the ex-servicemen should go back to the bush and take up arms. That, according to them, was one of the reasons why they had a personal beef for the minister.
Furthermore, they said what angered them most was when the minister pronounced that the Ministry of Finance was looking for the money to pay them. One of the ex-servicemen, who was identified only as Mohamed, explained that they were once told by senior government officials and Military personnel that the money was at the Ministry of Finance and now they were hearing from the minister that there was no money, and they were in the process of raising it.
Following the pistol shot, some of the ex-servicemen were captured and beaten by the armed Defence soldiers. As at press time eight (8) of them have been arrested and detained at the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) at Pademba Road, Freetown.
However, the retreating ex-servicemen threatened that they would be back and strong to avenge the beating and torture of their arrested colleagues and to force the authorities to pay them their benefits.
In another development, at the height of the confrontation, armed soldiers reportedly harassed and allegedly beat up and seized the camera of a journalist working for the Awoko Newspaper by the name of Poindexter Sama, along Percival Street, when he attempted to take photos of them.