Guinea: fifty years ago, "Mar Verde", the Portuguese attack on Conakry

Moussa Soumah holds in his hands the White Paper of Operation Mar Verde, November 22, 1970, in Conakry.

© Carole Valade / RFI

Text by: Carol Valade Follow

7 min

On November 22, 1970, the fate of Guinea nearly changed.

The Portuguese Empire in decline is in difficulty on its territory of present-day Guinea-Bissau.

Lisbon is going to try everything for everything by organizing, for the first time in its history and in the greatest secrecy, a lightning attack outside its borders.

Objective: to overthrow the regime of Sékou Touré, the main support of the independentist rebels of the PAIGC.

The coup failed partially, but in 1971 triggered the largest wave of repression in the history of Guinea.


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From our correspondent in Conakry

His hands shake as he turns the wet pages.

The “White Paper” now has the ocher color of passing time.

The cover has disappeared giving way to a portrait of Ahmed Sékou Touré.

The reader is about to dive into the troubled waters of Guinean memory. 


This book contains the depositions of the accused after the attack of November 22,

 " explains Moussa Soumah, pointing to the faces.

The voice also begins to tremble: “

None have come out of prison.


Known by Guineans as "the Portuguese aggression", the operation bears, on the Portuguese-speaking side, the code name " 

Mar Verde

 ", prepared in the greatest secrecy by a handful of officers who will try to change the course of the colonial war, and the fate of Guinea. 

Calvão's plan

In 1970, Lisbon was under international pressure.

The military dictatorship refuses to grant independence to its colonies and is waging a murderous war on many fronts.

The PAIGC, the independence rebellion in Bissau supported by the Eastern bloc, Cuba and Guinea, is giving it a hard time.

The attacks are daily even in the capital.

To reverse the balance of power, an idea germinates in the mind of Commander Alpoim Calvão: a lightning attack in Conakry in order to neutralize the PAIGC fleet, destroy its rear base and overthrow its ally, President Ahmed Sékou Touré and, finally, release the Portuguese prisoners of war held in the capital. 

Calvão procures sealed suction cup mines in South Africa, Soviet uniforms for more discretion, 250 AK47s, 12 RPG7s, 20 82-millimeter mortars as well as ammunition which passes through Lisbon. 

We knew that there was a group of Guinean exiles, called the Front de liberation national de Guinée, which was in contact with the Portuguese government.

They demanded our support for military action against Sékou Touré,

 ”recalls Calvão, who undertakes to reconcile the political wing of the movement, led by David Soumah and the military wing of Thierno Diallo, briefly arrested in Dakar. 

Other interceptions put secrecy at risk.

At the end of September 1970, Ahmed Sékou Touré denounced on Radio Conakry "

 the existence in Guinea-Bissau of training camps for Guinean mercenaries


Lisbon nevertheless gives the green light, provided there is nothing to identify the perpetrators.

The boats are repainted to the lifebuoys, the Portuguese dye their faces black, the blood group plates, the magazines, the matchboxes thrown into the sea.

The six ships approach in silence and in dispersed order.

Conakry on sight

 " said the telegram.

430 soldiers take part in the operation: 200 members of the FLNG, 150 African commandos and 80 fuzilleiros especiais, the elite unit of the colonial army.

Like in the movie, but this was the reality! 


This November 22, 1970, the moon is new, the tide is full and no wind is shaking the shrouds.

Alpoim Calvão did not only choose the date based on meteorological criteria: on Saturdays, the dance halls and cinemas in Conakry are sold out. 

Moussa Soumah does not suspect anything, he applauds the exploits of Gregory Peck in

The Guns of Navarone

screened that evening at the cinema 8-Novembre.

Back home, the first detonations ring out “ 

like in the film, but that was the reality! 

In the port of Conakry, a fireball rises towards the sky.

The offensive begins.

The PAIGC fleet is quickly destroyed and the city plunged into darkness.

Calvão is counting on the power cut to destabilize the enemy. 

The rubber dinghies slide towards the earth, the fuzileiros storm the Boiro camp, then the militia camp before jumping the wall that separates it from Villa Silly, the residence of the Head of State.

They climb the stairs four to four but upstairs the bed is still made: Sékou Touré is in a safe place. 

No trace either of Amilcar Cabral, founder of the PAIGC.

The attackers nevertheless destroyed the party's facilities and freed the Portuguese prisoners.


I was woken up in the middle of the night by gunshots that were approaching quickly,”

recalls the most famous of them, Pilot Sergeant Antonio Lobato.

Then, a bazooka shot blew up the window.

Hearing all this, I was certain that these men were among us.



The day begins to dawn and the counter-offensive begins.

In the Wireless district, the Guinean tanks regain control of the Samory camp.

Alpha Oumar Bah sticks his nose out: " 

I thought: 'but he's not going to shoot anyway!'

But the blow is gone and there… I confess that, I was faster than the sound to get away!


These unexpected reinforcements destabilize the assailants who, arriving at the airport, find no trace of the military aircraft they are supposed to destroy.

Worse still: one of the Portuguese officers has just deserted: "

 This son of a lieutenant has fled with twenty of my men, he betrayed me miserably

 ", we can read in a telegram from Captain Morais.

Failure to control the sky, the air attack is canceled.

Unable to take the risk of being identified by the loss of a ship, Calvão sounds his retirement.


People of Guinea, you are the victim in your capital Conakry of an aggression on the part of the imperialist forces

 ", the words of Sékou Touré resonate on the waves of the Voice of the Revolution.

The attackers failed to silence the national radio.

As the FLNG continues to fight on land, the freed prisoners reach the ships that are already weighing anchor.


Arbitrariness and injustice 


Did the people respond to the call to arms launched by the Supreme Leader of the Revolution?

The versions differ.

For the regime, this is proof that an " 

international conspiracy 

" exists and the opportunity to unleash one of the most ferocious repressions in its history: the "great purge" of 71. In the country's prefectures, the revolutionary popular courts condemn with all their hands.

On January 25, schoolchildren from Conakry were summoned under the November 8 bridge to see the bodies of four senior regime officials swinging at the end of a rope, accused of complicity.

It upset us,

testifies Moussa Soumah.

I understood that it was a question of eliminating those which constituted an obstacle for the president, like the pawns on the chessboard

”, he said, lowering his voice.

The subject remains sensitive: in Guinea history is a political issue. 

The same day, at the height of his 6 years, Mohammed Barry saw his father cry for the first time: “ 

I discovered arbitrariness and injustice.

 In the Sans-Fil district, he picks up the bullet cases without really knowing why.

Fifty years later, he is one of the most active human rights activists in the country. 


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