President flown to Switzerland for new medical check

Ailing Guinean President Lansana Conte was flown to Switzerland on Friday for a new medical check-up, a statement from the ministry for presidential affairs said.

It will be Conte’s second medical check-up in Switzerland in five months.

Last March, the president’s sudden and unannounced departure for Geneva raised a swirl of apprehension. But this time the government made the trip official, announcing it on public radio and television.

“The ministry for presidential affairs informs that the president of the republic is leaving Conakry this Friday morning for a private visit to Switzerland during which he will undergo a medical check-up,” the statement said.

The head of state was accompanied by Health Minister Amara Cisse and other top aides.

Asked for further information on the state of his health, one government official refused further details, referring IRIN to the official statement read out on state radio.

Conte, a former soldier in his 70s who seized power in a coup in 1984, suffers from chronic diabetes and other ailments. Many analysts fear the country could fall apart in the event of his death due to a power vacuum.

One of his fiercest critics, Jean-Marie Dore, leader of the opposition Union for the Progress of Guinea (UPG), urged Conte to step down in the interests of the country.

"I call on him to prove that he loves this country and its people and to step down," he said.

Despite vast natural resources, Guinea is one of the world’s poorest countries. About 54 percent of the population lives below the poverty threshold, according to United Nations figures. Inflation of around 30 percent has pushed prices so high that in June the cost of a 50-kg bag of rice amounted to more than half of a civil servant’s monthly wage, or around US $25.

Grinding poverty triggered two general strikes this year, the last of which lasted nine days in June, halting most economic activity and leading to serious clashes between students and police in which a score of people died. Strikers demanded and obtained public sector wage rises as well as help in pushing down rice, transport and fuel prices.

This week saw a restart in stalled political negotiations between the government and the opposition that are a key to maintaining international assistance.

Guinea’s opposition parties walked out of the negotiations process in anger following local elections last December they claimed were rigged.

The political talks, involving 15 parties but snubbed by the major Rally for the Guinean People (RPG) led by Alpha Conde, are aimed at thrashing out an agreement over the preparation of legislative elections in 2007. On the table are issues such as establishing an electoral register, delivering free identification cards, opening private radio stations and setting up an independent electoral commission.

The talks are supposed to continue next week.

“All we do in the run-up to the election we will do hand-in-hand with the opposition,” Interior Minister Moussa Solana said at the talks.

But opposition parties warned that a key point was the reform of the electoral commission, which they say is stacked with members of the ruling Party for Unity and Progress (PUP).

“We will negotiate for ages here, but if there’s no independent electoral commission nothing will work,” said Dore, of the opposition UPG.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mbaranga Gasarabwe last month told IRIN in an interview that the challenge in Guinea will be to see whether foreign donors stump up funds to help the troubled West African nation.

”We are focusing on how to have the government and civil society ensure that [people] can feed themselves. That’s about establishing good policy and a commitment from the government to make sure that they are working towards [economic] growth,” she said.

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