By Saliou Samb

Conakry - Thousands of people flocked to welcome Guinea's main opposition leader back home after two years in exile late on Sunday, as tensions run high in the West African country over soaring food and fuel prices.

Guinea is on edge over the failing health of its veteran President Lansana Conte, which has raised fears of a dangerous power vacuum. Rising prices for basic goods such as rice have increased the unease among its 8 million people.

Conte, a chain-smoking diabetic, seized power as a soldier in 1984 and has since brooked little dissent. The return of his main rival Alpha Conde, leader of the Guinea People's Rally (RPG) opposition group, from two years of self-imposed exile in Paris appeared to galvanise opposition supporters.

"Conde has been sent by God. Now he's here we hope that change will come," shouted one woman dressed in yellow, the party colours, among the throng at Conakry airport.

Conde did not address the crowd and has so far given no reasons for ending his exile and returning home.

Guinea was long seen as a bulwark against wars which raged in neighbours Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, but looks increasingly vulnerable with a stumbling economy, rampant corruption and a powerful but fractured military.

"Conde is the largest by far of the vultures who have begun to gather around the ailing Conte regime," said Olly Owen, an Africa analyst at Global Insight, and economic and financial research group.

"Conde, like all of those aspiring to power in Guinea, knows that when the end of the Conte regime comes it will be swift and it will be vital to be present on the ground to secure a stake in events," he said.

Conde stood against Conte in Guinea's first multi-party presidential elections in 1993 but many results from his ethnic Mandingo heartland in the east were cancelled by the government, allowing Conte to win easily.

He later spent two and a half years in detention - accused of wanting to seize power by force - after being arrested in December 1998 in the run-up to a presidential election in which he was again Conte's main challenger.

Increases in the cost of basic goods have contributed to several violent uprisings. Scores of youths with sticks and stones blocked traffic and burned tyres in the crumbling capital last Wednesday, some of them shouting "Down with Conte".

The official inflation rate is running at more than 30 percent. A 50kg sack of local rice, which cost 26 000 Guinean francs last year (about R40), now costs nearly five times as much. The cost of fuel shot up 50 percent in May, with the government blaming a spike in international crude prices.

Residents said trucks carrying rice and escorted by gendarmes were attacked in three Conakry suburbs late on Friday, one of them Conde's traditional stronghold of Mafanco, although a fragile calm returned to the pot-holed city on Saturday.

  • Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Dakar