* Election could be turning point for Guinea
* Analysts warn of violence if result rejected
* Rivals come from two main ethnic groups
(Adds quote from electoral commission, observers in paragraphs 6-9)
By Richard Valdmanis and Saliou Samb
CONAKRY, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Guineans voted peacefully on Sunday in a presidential run-off aimed at returning the country to civilian rule, though worries remained over the potential for ethnically-driven violence once results are released.
The election was the West African state’s first free vote since independence from France in 1958 and, if it passes smoothly, could improve stability in a fragile neighbourhood known as Africa’s “coup belt” while bolstering resource investment in a country rich in iron ore and bauxite.
But the run-up to the second-round election was marked by clashes between rival political and ethnic camps and rows over electoral preparations that caused months of delays since the first round on June 27.
Analysts have said that supporters of the two candidates — former Prime Minister Cellou Dallein Diallo and veteran opposition leader Alpha Conde — appear ill-prepared to accept a loss, raising the chance of clashes over the results.
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“I am pleased to say that there is peace, there is serenity,” said Diallo after casting his vote in the Dixin suburb of Conakry in front of a cheering crowd.
The head of Guinea’s electoral commission, General Siaka Sangare, said the vote “respected international norms”, with the most serious issue taking place in Spain, where some expatriate voters were unable to cast their ballots because election material had been destroyed.
He added that results would be released as soon as they were available, with some possible as early as Sunday night.
Election observers said that the poll appeared to have had a high turnout and that there were, so far, only minor reports of logistical problems interfering with voting.
“We now call on the two candidates and their supporters to maintain a calm environment while waiting for the complete and definitive results, and to use only legal means to resolve any disputes,” said Edem Kodjo, head of the African Union observer mission, in a joint statement with the European Union and Carter Center observer missions.
In the streets of Conakry, a ramshackle seaside city of mostly tin-roofed hovels and potholed roads, voters were hopeful the election would turn a new page for the country after decades of at times brutal authoritarian rule.
“We will liberate the country today,” said Alpha Issiaga Bongoura, a musician from the Sandervalia neighborhood.
The vote is meant to end junta rule prevailing since a December 2008 military coup, and comes close on the heels of Ivory Coast’s Oct. 31 first round of presidential elections, which passed peacefully.
Analysts have said a smooth Guinea vote would send a positive signal to a troubled West African region, which has seen three civil wars since the 1990s.
But ethnic divisions that date back centuries could prove problematic. Diallo and Conde each represent one of Guinea’s two most populous ethnic groups, the Peul and Malinke, respectively, and neither group appears ready for a loss.
“If Conde loses, the election will have been fraudulent,” said Amadou Camara, a Malinke taxi driver and Conde supporter.
Diallo took 43.69 percent in June’s first round, making him the favourite in the second round, while Conde took just 18.25 percent and later complained of fraud undermining his score.
Guinea is the world’s top supplier of aluminium ore bauxite and its resources have attracted billions of dollars of planned investment from companies like Vale and Rio Tinto.
But a government report obtained by Reuters last year showed political instability slowing the output of bauxite.
Both candidates have said they would review mining contracts, but analysts expect neither to make aggressive changes due to the importance of resource revenues to the impoverished state. (Editing by David Lewis, Mark John and Mark Heinrich)