Guinea's Dictator, Lansana Conte, Dies After Lengthy Illness

Guinea's long-ruling dictator, Lansana Conte, died after a lengthy illness, the head of the National Assembly announced early Tuesday on state-run TV.

Conte, believed to be around 70, had ruled the West African nation with an iron fist since grabbing power in a 1984 coup to become the country's second president.

National Assembly President Aboubacar Sompare, flanked by the country's prime minister and the head of the army, appeared on state-run TV at around 2 a.m. to announce that Conte had died Monday of an undisclosed illness.

"I have the heavy duty of informing the people of Guinea of the death of Gen. Lansana Conte following a long illness," said Sompare. "I present my condolences to he who during all these years hid his physical suffering in order to give happiness to Guinea."

The transfer of power has rarely been smooth in Guinea, a broken country on Africa's western seaboard that has been crippled by corruption and rocked by multiple coups since independence.

According to the Constitution, Sompare as the head of the national assembly becomes president upon the death of the head of state.

In his statement to the nation, Sompare called on the country's courts to apply the law, while Prime Minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare called on the army to secure the country's borders.

The two announcements, coupled by the presence of the head of the army at the televised appearance, could signal that the transfer of power will not be upended by a military coup.

If so, it would defy expectations in a nation that two years ago descended into chaos as demonstrators called for Conte to step down, prompting the president to declare martial law. Tanks rolled into the capital and security forces killed dozens of demonstrators.

Conte's health and his undisclosed illness have been an issue of national debate for years. Rumors of his death periodically crescendoed, including in 2003, when he was forced to go on TV to disclaim them.

A similar wave of rumors began gathering force earlier this month, when Conte failed to make his usual televised appearance on the occasion of Tabaski, the name used in West African languages for Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday.

Last week, the editor of a local paper was arrested after publishing a picture of the frail leader struggling to stand up. A spokesman for the president went on TV to assure the nation that Conte was not ill.

The newspaper was ordered to print a photograph of Conte, showing him in good health.

The 1984 coup that brought Conte to power came just days after the death of President Ahmed Sekou Toure, Guinea's head of state since independence from France in 1958.