CONAKRY Guineans voted peacefully on Sunday in a presidential run-off aimed at returning the country to civilian rule, though worries remained over the potential for ethnically-driven violence once the results are released.
The election was the West African state's first free vote since independence from France in 1958 and, if it passes smoothly, could improve stability in a fragile neighborhood known as Africa's "coup belt" while bolstering resource investment in a country rich in iron ore and bauxite.
But the run-up to the second-round election was marked by clashes between rival political and ethnic camps and rows over electoral preparations that caused months of delays since the first round on June 27.
Analysts have said that supporters of the two candidates -- former Prime Minister Cellou Dallein Diallo and veteran opposition leader Alpha Conde -- appear ill-prepared to accept a loss, raising the chance of clashes over the results.
"I am pleased to say that there is peace, there is serenity," said Diallo after casting his vote in the Dixin suburb of Conakry in front of a cheering crowd.
Election observers said that there were, so far, only minor reports of logistical problems with the vote, including some spot shortages of ballot envelopes.
"Things appear to be running mostly smoothly so far," said Elizabeth Cote of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). "The election workers are being very professional."
In the streets of Conakry, a ramshackle seaside city of mostly tin-roofed hovels and potholed roads, voters were hopeful the election would turn a new page for the country after decades of at-times brutal authoritarian rule.
"We will liberate the country today," said Alpha Issiaga Bongoura, a musician, just before voting in the waterfront neighborhood of Sandervalia.
At another polling station, a soldier held up his index finger stained by indelible ink after casting his ballot and smiled as other soldiers arrived to vote.
"I am very happy," he said.
The vote is meant to end junta rule prevailing since a December 2008 military coup, and comes close on the heels of Ivory Coast's October 31 first round of presidential elections, which passed peacefully.
Analysts have said a smooth Guinea vote would send a positive signal to a troubled West African region, which has seen three civil wars since the 1990s.
But ethnic divisions that date back centuries could prove problematic. Diallo and Conde each represent one of Guinea's two most populous ethnic groups, the Peul and Malinke, respectively, and neither group appears ready for a loss.
"If Conde loses, the election will have been fraudulent," said Amadou Camara, a Malinke taxi driver and Conde supporter.
Diallo took 43.69 percent in June's first round, making him the favorite in the second round, while Conde took just 18.25 percent and later complained of fraud undermining his score.
Guinea is the world's top supplier of aluminum ore bauxite and its resources have attracted billions of dollars of planned investment from companies like Vale and Rio Tinto.
But a government report obtained by Reuters last year showed political instability slowing the output of bauxite.
Both candidates have said they would review mining contracts, but analysts expect neither to make aggressive changes due to the importance of resource revenues to the impoverished state.
(Editing by David Lewis, Mark John and Mark Heinrich)