CONAKRY— Rival gangs fought with knives and truncheons in Guinea's crumbling seaside capital on Friday as ethnic tensions worsened ahead of an election in the unstable West African nation, witnesses said.
Security forces in full anti-riot gear piled into the backs of pick-up trucks and deployed across Conakry to separate the fighters as President Alpha Conde's government appealed for calm.
"It has become very bad. People set fire to a car right in front of me. I've seen four people injured in the fighting," said Souleymane Bah, a resident of Bambeto, one of several areas where clashes were reported.
"We've locked ourselves inside a bank. I can see people fighting outside," resident Abdoulaye Sylla told Reuters by telephone from Conakry's Dixxin neighborhood.
Residents in other areas fled in panic as the gangs from rival ethnic groups roamed the streets, according to witnesses.
The long-delayed legislative vote, tentatively set for May, is needed to complete a transition to civilian rule after a 2008 military coup, and could open the door to hundreds of millions of dollars in European aid.
But preparations for the poll have been hampered by opposition claims the government is seeking to rig the outcome in advance, leading to a political impasse and sparking sporadic street protests that often turn violent.
Politics in Guinea are mainly drawn along ethnic lines with the opposition coalition broadly supported by members of the Peul ethnicity — the country's biggest ethnic group — and the government supported by the Malinke.
The fighting on Friday follows two days of anti-government protests that have sharpened those divisions. One civilian was killed in those protests and scores of protesters and police were injured.
The United States Embassy in Guinea issued a statement late on Thursday expressing concern about the violence and calling for restraint. "The United States continues to urge the Republic of Guinea to work with all parties to ensure that peaceful and transparent elections take place," it said.
Conde's government said on Friday it called on citizens to remain calm, and said it would hold talks with representatives of the country's political parties next week.
Conde narrowly won a 2010 presidential election — billed as the former French colony's first free poll since 1958 independence — promising to unite Guinea in the same way Nelson Mandela did after apartheid in South Africa. But many of his compatriots say he has failed.
Opposition leader and former premier Sidya Toure said opposition supporters were defending themselves.
"The situation has clearly degenerated into inter-ethnic violence between the Peuls and Malinkes," he said. "We've already called for calm, but what can you tell someone who is being attacked with a club?"
Conde has promised prosperity for the former French colony's 10 million people, which is the world's top supplier of bauxite, the raw material in aluminum.
Guinea's economy produces only about $1.50 per person per day despite a wealth of natural resources, including the world's largest untapped iron ore deposit.