Thousands of Guineans from the Peul ethnic group have been forced to flee their homes in ethnic clashes ahead of the country's upcoming presidential election, officials said Thursday, overshadowing a looming poll in a country that has never succeeded in freely electing its leader.
The Peul have been chased out of towns in the country's north by Malinke supporters of Conde in a tit-for-tat fight following rumors that Peul businessmen tried to serve tainted water sachets at a Conde rally last Friday.
The violence spread from the capital, where Conde's party said at least 160 of their supporters became intoxicated after drinking the water sachets, to the towns surrounding Kankan in the country's far north, which is a stronghold of Conde's party. Peul businesses were set on fire and looted.
Over the weekend, at least 1,800 people from the Peul ethnic group poured into the towns south of Kankan including Dinguiraye and Dabola, located approximately 300 miles (500 kilometers) north of the capital, said Alexandre Gashangi, who heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Conakry.
Dinguiraye mayor Kouro Sow said by telephone that families came on the backs of motorcycles, in buses and on foot. Some bore machete wounds. Many had feet so torn up from walking that they needed medical attention, she said.
The majority were being housed at the local headquarters of the Union for the Democratic Forces of Guinea, or UFDG, the party of Peul leader Cellou Dalein Diallo.
Guinea has never had an election deemed free and fair since winning independence in 1958. The former French colony appeared to have turned a corner earlier this year when the military junta ruling the country agreed to hand over power to civilians in elections this summer.
The vote has instead devolved into a contest between the country's top two ethnic groups, with the Peul unanimously backing Diallo while the Malinke support Conde.
The two groups have a history of animosity stretching back to the rule of Guinea's first dictator _ a Malinke _ who declared he had uncovered a "Peul plot" and arrested countless hundreds who were sent to their death in a Conakry gulag.
The upcoming vote has been canceled and rescheduled multiple times, and is now scheduled for Nov. 7.
Also on Thursday, a trip to the affected towns by the country's dueling presidential candidates which was intended to show a united front in condemning the violence was abruptly canceled Thursday after Malinke politician Alpha Conde pulled out.
"I was there at 0900. The minister for security was there. He was to lead the delegation. The minister of transport was there ... I was there," Diallo told the Associated Press at his home in Conakry. "But we did not see Professor Alpha Conde _ and we did not understand why," he said.
Conde spokesman Kiridi Bangoura and another party leader Moustapha Doumbouya said the candidate meant to leave his house earlier in the day to accompany Diallo, but was stopped by his own supporters from leaving the villa. The supporters were angry that Conde was to visit displaced Peul when Diallo has not yet visited Conde's hospitalized supporters.
"Our party members are victims of intoxication. They are in the hospital. Not a single official from the UFDG has bothered to come see them _ are they not citizens of Guinea, too?" said Doumbouya, a youth leader in Conde's Rally for the Guinean People party. "Yes we think Diallo should go to the hospitals here, before our leader goes to the north."
Medical officials have neither confirmed nor denied the allegations of poisoning. Dr. Fatoumata Binta Diallo, director of Ignace Deen Hospital where some of the patients were taken, told the AP by telephone that the hospital could not confirm the claims without first performing tests.
The growing tension between the two sides is casting a pall over the upcoming vote.
Election expert Elizabeth Cote of the International Foundation for Election Systems, a group advising Guinea's electoral commission, said she is confident the vote will go ahead because earlier hurdles including missing voting materials and disagreements over the makeup of voting precincts have been resolved.
Diallo told The AP that he is committed to going to the polls on Nov. 7 but said he worries that part of his electorate may be disenfranchised. He said Peul election workers are too afraid to go to Kankan and the other northern towns where the most vicious violence erupted.
"There is a risk that UFDG will be totally absent, it will not have any delegates, any assessors in the voting station," he said. "If these conditions are not met, the voting process will not be equitable in those districts, because today we have difficulty finding representatives in these areas."
Associated Press staffer Jerome Delay contributed to this report from Conakry, Guinea. Rukmini Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal.