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Veteran Guinea President Conte dies
Tue Dec 23, 2008 1:31am EST
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By Saliou Samb
CONAKRY (Reuters) - Guinea's President Lansana Conte has died after an illness, the government said on Tuesday, leaving a potential power vacuum in the West African bauxite exporter he had ruled for nearly a quarter of a century.
The impoverished country that the diabetic, chain-smoking general headed has experienced anti-government riots and strikes and a spate of bloody military mutinies in recent years.
When government leaders gathered to announce Conte's death on state television in the early hours of Tuesday, military commander Diarra Camara ordered troops to protect strategic locations and the borders of the former French colony.
National Assembly President Aboubacar Sompare, accompanied during the broadcast by Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare, Camara and other officials, said Conte died on Monday night. Conte was believed to be 74.
Sompare asked the country's Supreme Court to name him president in line with the constitution. He was expected to subsequently organize elections to choose a new president.
"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 in the television broadcast.
As the television played Guinean music, Sompare declared 40 days of national mourning in the world's number one exporter of bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made.
He praised 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 rumors that Conte was seriously ill had circulated in the dilapidated seaside capital Conakry for days, the government chose the early hours of Tuesday, when most people were sleeping, to announce his death. The streets were calm.
MILITARY HAS KEY ROLE
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 U.S. 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," Conte once said.
Analysts said the way in which the military, a key pillar of support for 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.
"The military obeyed Conte ... and now he's not there," one veteran local journalist told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Guinean economist Mohamed Sadou Diallo 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. Continued...
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