DAKAR (Reuters) - Guinea opposition leaders have accepted a government offer to begin talks aimed at resolving tensions that have sparked violent street protests, the United Nations' top regional official said on Thursday.
Protest marches in April and May against the timing of elections later this year led to at least six deaths, according to Amnesty International. The opposition accuses security forces of firing on the crowds, but authorities deny this.
Observers have voiced concern that a presidential election planned for October could be marred by violence. More than 50 people died in riots ahead of Guinea's legislative elections in 2013.
Guinea's Justice Minister Cheick Sako invited the head of the opposition, Cellou Dalien Diallo, to discuss the standoff in a letter dated May 26, seen by Reuters.
U.N. Special Representative for West Africa Mohamed Ibn Chambas said Diallo as well as the head of opposition party UFR Sekou Toure would attend the talks in Conakry from Friday.
"Good progress has been made," he told Reuters. "Both sides have come to realize the constitutional imperative of holding presidential elections this year and that it is only through dialogue that they can come to an understanding."
A spokesman for Diallo said the opposition wanted a dialogue and the two sides were on the verge of agreeing an agenda for the talks but a formal decision had not yet been announced.
A government spokesman was not available for comment.
Discussions are expected to focus on the timing of local elections as well as the role of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The opposition accuses the government of breaching an agreement to hold local elections before the presidential vote, a factor they say gives President Alpha Conde an advantage since municipal authorities are packed with his supporters.
Chambas said that the parties would discuss several solutions to the deadlock, including the possibility of holding local elections either before or in parallel with the presidential vote.
He added that a failure to find agreement could hamper Guinea's efforts to eradicate an Ebola epidemic that began more than a year ago, killing more than 2,400 people and scaring off mining investors. Guinea is Africa's largest bauxite exporter.
(Reporting by Emma Farge; additional reporting by Daniel Flynn in Dakar and Saliou Samb in Conakry; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)