Thousands mass in Guinea to demand graft-free vote
* Demand new firms to manage voter registration
* Protest largely peaceful, opposition vows more action
By Saliou Samb
CONAKRY, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Opposition supporters held protests across Guinea on Monday to demand a free and fair parliamentary election, fearing the first such vote in more than a decade will be cheapened by fraud.
The May 12 vote is intended to be the last step in Guinea's return to civilian rule following the death of veteran strongman Lansana Conte in 2008 and two years of violent army rule.
Opponents of President Alpha Conde say preparations for the long-delayed vote have been flawed.
They point to a contract awarded to two companies to update the voter roll, saying the two firms have been skewing the list to favour the president's allies.
The European Union, one of Guinea's major donors, warned in November that it needed a credible and detailed timeline for the election to unblock about 174 million euros ($234.28 million).
The EU and other donors also want a vote that is inclusive, free and fair. Conde, who spent many years in the opposition, needs a smooth vote to entrench his legitimacy.
Conde was elected in 2010 in the first free leadership vote after decades of one-man rule and two years of a military junta.
He has promised prosperity for Guinea's 10 million people - Guinea's south holds the world's largest untapped deposit of iron ore.
But the delays in the legislative vote have deepened a political deadlock and led to intermittent violence, unnerving investors as they wait to tap into the country's iron ore, bauxite and gold reserves.
About 10,000 protesters were on the streets of the capital Conakry by midday on Monday, according to opposition estimates.
The government said a 4,000-strong security contingent, including armed police with truncheons and anti-riot gear, had been deployed on the streets to keep order.
Shops in Conakry's main Madina market were shut as protesters converged near the city centre, blocking traffic.
"The people have come out to say no to dictatorship. No to attempts to organise electoral fraud, and to demand free and fair elections," Mouctar Diallo, an opposition party leader, told journalists in Conakry.
"We are also demanding that the contract awarded to the companies be terminated and that Guineans abroad should be allowed to vote," Diallo said.
The government has rejected those demands.
There were no reports of violence beside a minor clash between some opposition and ruling party supporters in one Conakry neighbourhood, government spokesman Damantang Albert Camara said.
The authorities had banned the protest on Friday but the president then said it could go ahead.
The opposition has vowed to continue the protest throughout the week and organise national strikes until the government accepts its demands.
"The demonstration is just the beginning today. It is not going to stop," said Ibrahima Sory Bangura of the main opposition UFDG party. (Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)
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