Violence flares in Guinea as voters cast ballots in contentious referendum

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Voters in the West African state of Guinea began casting their ballots on Sunday in a bitterly-disputed referendum that critics say is a ploy by President Alpha Conde to stay in power, and that was almost immediately marred by sporadic violence.

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Conde is proposing a change to the constitution to codify gender equality and introduce other social reforms.

But his opponents fear the real motive is to reset presidential term limits, allowing Conde, 82, to run for a third spell in office later this year – a scenario that his government has not discounted.

Shortly after voting began at 0800 GMT, young people attacked police deployed outside a polling station in a school in Ratoma, a suburb of Conakry, according to an AFP reporter and other witnesses.

In another school nearby, voting equipment was vandalised.

Since October, Guineans have protested en masse against the possibility of Conde extending his grip on power. At least 31 people and one gendarme have been killed to date, according to an AFP tally.

There are also questions about the fairness of Sunday's vote, which additionally is taking place amid mounting concern about the spread of the novel coronavirus in Africa, including two cases that officials reported in Guinea.

'Taking things lightly'

"I have the impression our country is taking things lightly," said Amadou Oury Bah, a banker and politician who suspected the authorities were more interested in their electoral campaign than keeping the country safe.

The governing party called for people to vote as one official, Fode Cisse, said: "We insist on the strict respect of health measures."

Originally scheduled for March 1, Conde postponed the referendum late last month after international criticism of some 2.5 million dubious names on the country's electoral roll.

Some 7.7 million people were on the register, out of a total population about 13 million people.

The government says it has now scrubbed the problematic names, after an expert team from the West Africa bloc ECOWAS urged doing so last week.

But Guinea's embattled opposition still doubts the vote's credibility.

Cellou Diallo, a former premier and the head of the leading opposition party the UFDG, said the process of cleaning up the electoral roll had been opaque.

"It is an electoral masquerade," he said, adding that the roll did not reflect the electorate.

His party, as well as the other large opposition parties, are boycotting both the referendum and a parliamentary election that is taking place at the same time.

In a deeply polarised political environment, opposition figures have also vowed to stop the votes from taking place.

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