Veteran Guinea president dies

Lansana Conte dies after an illness leaving a potential power vacuum in the West African bauxite exporter.

Guinea's president, Lansana Conte, pictured on Dec 12 1998 representing the ruling Party of Unity and Progress (PUP) during his final campaign rally, in Conakry.
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CONAKRY // Guinea's president, Lansana Conte, has died after an illness, the government said today, leaving a potential power vacuum in the West African bauxite exporter he had ruled with an iron fist for nearly 25 years. The impoverished country that the general headed has experienced anti-government riots, strikes and bloody military mutinies in recent years, aggravated by rising prices of food and fuel. Most of the population are poor, despite the nation's huge mineral riches.

When government leaders gathered to announce Mr Conte's death on state television in the early hours of this morning military commander Diarra Camara ordered troops to protect strategic locations and the borders of the former French colony. The president of the national assembly, Aboubacar Sompare, who was accompanied during the broadcast by the prime minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare, Mr Camara and other officials, said Mr Conte had died last night. Mr Conte was believed to be 74.

Mr Sompare asked the country's Supreme Court to name him president in line with the constitution. Article 34 of Guinea's constitution foresees the national assembly president taking over in the event of the death of the head of state and organising presidential elections in 60 days. Legislative elections were already planned for 2009. "I have the heavy and difficult task to inform you with great sadness of the death of General Lansana Conte, President of the Republic of Guinea," he said.

Mr Sompare declared 40 days of national mourning in the world's number one exporter of bauxite, the ore from which aluminium is made. He praised Mr Conte, who liked to cultivate rice at his home in solidarity with Guinea's farmers and sometimes received visitors while puffing a cigar, as "a solid peasant, a brave soldier". Although rumours that Mr Conte was seriously ill had circulated in the dilapidated seaside capital Conakry for days, the government chose the early hours of today, when most people were sleeping, to announce his death. The streets were calm.

Mr Conte, who said he was born around 1934, had governed Guinea since 1984 when he seized power after the country's first president, Sekou Toure, died in a US hospital. But he never groomed a clear successor. "I arrived as a soldier, and I will finish as a soldier ... God gives and takes life ? end of story," Mr Conte once said. Analysts said the way in which the military, a key pillar of support for Mr Conte's rule, reacted to the news of his death would be crucial to the future stability of the country, where major international mining companies have operations.

Mohamed Sadou Diallo, a Guinean economist, said the television appearance of all the national leaders offered some reassurance. "But there's still uncertainty about the future of the country," he said. Mr Conte, who became reclusive in his later years of rule, had suffered health problems for years, including sometimes collapsing in public. He often travelled abroad for medical treatment in Morocco, Cuba and Switzerland.

Veteran opposition leader Jean Marie Dore of the Union for the Progress of Guinea party, a fierce critic of Conte, said he was saddened by the death of a man he called a "compatriot". "The most important is what is to come: It is essential that the institutions function correctly and that the provisions of the constitution be respected," said Mr Dore. Last year, a general strike triggered anti-government riots in which more than 180 people were killed, most of them shot by Mr Conte's forces, according to witnesses and human rights groups.

Units of the army and police staged violent mutinies this year to demand payment of back pay and other benefits. *Reuters