Guinea opposition agrees to election talks with government
CONAKRY (Reuters) - Guinea's main opposition parties said on Friday they will take part in preliminary talks aimed at ending a deadlock over forthcoming elections, after the government agreed to suspend poll preparations.
At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in street protests called by the opposition over accusations that the authorities were planning to rig parliamentary elections due on May 12.
"We will go to the negotiating table as our demands have been respected," said leading opposition figure Sidya Toure.
Toure was referring to a decision by the government late on Thursday to suspend the activities of the election commission for a week, one of the demands issued by President Alpha Conde's rivals, who were threatening to protest again next week.
Toure, a former prime minister, said parties would continue to push for the replacement of Waymark, the South African firm tasked with updating the electoral register, and demand that Guineans living abroad be allowed to vote.
Last weekend, West African leaders called on Guinea's government to hold talks to ease tensions. Washington also urged the administration to work with "all parties" to ensure peaceful and transparent polls.
Guinea is the world's top supplier of the aluminum ore bauxite and holds rich deposits of iron ore. But the political turmoil has unnerved investors.
According to sources involved in mediation efforts, religious and civil society leaders will first talk to both sides separately before arranging direct negotiations.
"I am optimistic about talks," Laye Junior Conde, a member of the pro-Conde RPG party, told journalists. "Having flexed their muscles, the parties are now ready to talk."
The vote is meant to be the last step in a drawn-out transition to civilian rule after a coup in late 2008 was followed by two bloody years with the army in charge.
Political uncertainty hit Guinea's growth last year, with the mining-dependent economy registering 3.9 percent, 1 percentage point lower than forecast.
Rio Tinto last week told government officials it had slowed progress of its multi-billion dollar investment in the huge, untapped Simandou iron ore deposit, according to government and industry sources - the latest sign that investors may be getting cold feet.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in European aid also hinges on the holding of the election.
Behind Guinea's political feuding there is a deep-rooted rivalry between the Malinke and the Peul, its two largest ethnic groups. The Malinke broadly support Conde, who comes from that ethnic group, while the opposition draws heavily from the Peul.