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President Lansana Conte dies, aged 74

Latest update : 2008-12-23

Guinea's President Lansana Conte, who ruled the West African nation with an iron fist since 1984, has died, aged 74. The precise circumstances of his death are not yet known, but the ailing African leader suffered from chronic diabetes.

AFP - Guinea's President Lansana Conte, who ruled the West African nation with an iron fist for 24 years, has died after a reign marked by brutal repression in a mineral-rich country that is nevertheless ranked among the world's poorest.

Conte died late Monday after "a long illness" aged 74, National Assembly Speaker Aboubacar Sompare told state television early Tuesday.

Immediately after the announcement Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare appealed for calm to the "brave Guinean people," calling on the army to help keep the peace.

No incidents were signalled in the hours following the announcement of Conte's death.

In power since 1984, the ailing Conte, who relied on the army to put down growing discontent, was a chain smoker who suffered from chronic diabetes and was at one time diagnosed with leukemia.

Souare decreed 40 days of national mourning for Conte, saying: "Flags will be flown at half-mast and the programme for the state funeral will be announced later."

After presenting his condolences to the people of Guinea in the name of the government, Souare, flanked by the speaker of the national assembly and the armed forces chief of staff, called for "calm and restraint."

The premier, who has held the post since May and is reputedly close to the president's clan, went on: "I call on the defence and security forces to assure the security of our borders and calm inside national territory in homage to the memory of the illustrious late leader."

Sompare officially asked the president of the supreme court to declare the presidency vacant and to apply the constitution, which stipulates that the speaker of the assembly takes over temporarily and has to organize a presidential election within 60 days.

Conte, a career soldier, had relied on the army along with his clan to bolster his political and economic authority since he took power in a coup in April 1984 a week after the death of Guinea's first president, Ahmed Sekou Toure.

In recent years social tension and criticism of his regime had become increasingly open in the crisis-ridden west African country.

Top officials of the regime met overnight in the capital Conakry to discuss a successor to Conte, a source close to the presidential palace said.

Among the officials meeting in emergency session at the People's Palace, seat of the national assembly, were Prime Minister Souare, Sompare, the president of the supreme court and military leaders.

Last week government spokesman Tibou Kamara had scolded "bearers of false reports" speculating about the president's state of health.

From colonial soldier to coup leader to elected head of state, Conte's path took him in his final years to being a "peasant president" -- a self-styled man of the people who used the army to put down growing discontent.

"I am the boss, others are my subordinates," he told AFP in an interview last year. Asked who might one day replace him, Conte was dismissive in response.

"There is no question of transition," he said, despite his frequent hospital treatments abroad.

In early 2007 big demonstrations hostile to the regime and the "predators of the national economy" were brutally suppressed: at least 186 people were killed.

This November at least four people died when demonstrations shook the suburbs of Conakry, with security forces firing live ammunition, according to Human Rights Watch.

Speeches by regime officials evoking the "regretted president" are unlikely to move the nine million inhabitants of Guinea, 53 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Non-governmental organisations have frequently hit out at the "calamitous" management of Guinea, riddled with corruption and rated as one of the world's poorest countries despite potential riches including bauxite, iron, gold and diamonds.

Date created : 2008-12-23