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Guinea Opposition Criticizes Constitution Referendum

Opposition parties in Guinea are condemning the passage of a constitutional referendum that would remove presidential term limits. That would allow the country's long-ruling president, Lansana Conte, to seek re-election indefinitely. The referendum was held Sunday and results were announced on Wednesday.

News that the referendum passed came as no surprise to opposition leaders, who had called for a boycott of the vote. Still, a spokesman for the opposition, Mamadou Ba, called the government's claim that the referendum had received overwhelming public support, "shameful."

The measure put before Guineans last Sunday would allow the president to change the country's Constitution, removing presidential term limits. The change would mean President Lansana Conte, who first took power in a 1984 military coup, may run for a third term, after his current one expires in 2003.

Guinea's Constitution currently allows a head of state to serve a maximum of two, five-year terms. With the changes, each term would be seven years, and there would no longer be a limit on the number of terms that a person may serve as head of state. An age limit would also be eliminated. It is not clear when the measures would take effect.

President Conte prompted international concern last month when he said he wanted to seek a third term. The United States called for the balloting to be free and fair. Representatives of the European Union met with Guinean government officials last week to discuss the referendum. Thus far, there has been no mention of sanctions by the EU.

Mr. Conte is the latest head of state in the region to push for a change in the laws in order to stay in power. In Togo, the prime minister, Agbeyome Kodjo, in recent months announced he would seek to change the constitution, in order to allow long-time President Gnassingbe Eyadema to seek another term.

Guinean opposition leaders, including Alpha Conde who was imprisoned on treason charges and recently released, rejected the referendum results, and called for sanctions against the Guinean government.

Reports by the government-controlled media in Guinea say voter turnout was more than 80 percent on Sunday, but witnesses, including foreign journalists, disagree, saying few people went to the polls. According to the opposition, no more than 20 percent of voters turned out.

The Guinean capital, Conakry, has remained calm following the government's announcement of the poll results on Wednesday. Speaking on state television, Justice Minister Abou Camara warned politicians not to make statements that might result in demonstrations.