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World News

Guinea yearns for change with first free vote

CONAKRY (Reuters) - Voters in Guinea go to the polls on Sunday in their first chance to freely elect their leadership since the coup-prone West African state won independence from France in 1958.

A smooth election would not only act as a potential trigger for the investment needed to exploit its vast mineral riches and revive its economy, but would boost pro-democracy movements in a region that has seen a string of coups and tainted elections.

Locals are still rubbing their eyes at events since an army massacre of pro-democracy marchers last September 28 brought Guinea close to civil war. Weeks later, junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara was wounded in a gun attack by an aide and his Western-backed successor subsequently pledged to hand rule back to civilians.

“I am going to vote for a citizen who can help Guinea, not someone who will run Guinea like a shop for making money. That is all finished,” said fisherman Moussa Drame of a state which is the world’s top exporter of the aluminum ore bauxite but where a third of the population of 10 million live in poverty.

Sekouba Konate, the soldier who succeeded Camara as junta leader and who insists he has no interest in political power, told Guineans late on Saturday they were at a turning point.

“I say to Guineans, it’s your choice: freedom, peace and democracy, or instability and violence,” he told reporters.

“It’s not just a question of electing one candidate, it’s a question of creating the conditions to realize our dreams.”

Six people were killed in clashes this week between rival political groups in the village of Coyah 50 km (30 miles) outside the capital, but it was the only major outbreak of violence for weeks.

HARD BARGAINING

Final rallies held by candidates in Conakry were noisy but peaceful. Security forces have banned large gatherings during voting, due to start at 7.00 a.m. local time (0700 GMT), and are closing national borders until midnight on Sunday.

“I am asking the leaders competing in the race to urge their supporters to ... respect republican principles,” said army chief Colonel Nouhou Thiam, using a standard formula to urge losing parties to respect the outcome of the vote.

The streets of Conakry, a city of jerry-built metal shacks and roadside food stalls, were busy with shoppers, traffic and boys playing football on Saturday, with campaigning over.

With 24 candidates in the running, most observers do not expect Sunday’s vote to produce a clear winner. Results are expected by Wednesday, after which the front-runners are seen forming alliances in a bid to win voters for a July 18 run-off.

“All the candidates signed up to say they would respect the outcome of the election and have a peaceful election,” said U.S. ambassador Patricia Moller.

“The winner will have to form a government that represents all of Guinea. There’ll be some hard bargaining.”

Assembly of Guinean People leader Alpha Conde and Cellou Dalein Diallo of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea are among the favorites.

Both belong to large ethnic groups -- Malinke and Peul respectively -- in a vote that may divide on ethnic lines. Sidya Toure, another top contender, is from the Diakhanke minority.

All have pledged to improve the lot of ordinary Guineans, and some vow to review contracts with foreign firms for bauxite, iron and other resources. Yet analysts say Guinea is aware it needs the mining giants to extract the riches from its soil.

International organizations and foreign countries are heavily involved in the election, to be observed by the European Union and West African regional body ECOWAS among others.

“The Secretary-General ... calls upon the country’s partners to continue to accompany Guineans as they strive to restore constitutional order in their country, institute crucial socio-economic reforms and promote respect for human rights,” a spokesman for United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said.

Additional reporting by Saliou Samb and Media Coulibaly; editing by Mark John

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