* Conde calls on rivals to end violence, help him rebuild
* Poll winner plays down ethnic divisions despite tensions (Adds U.N. Security Council statement in paragraph 7)
By Saliou Samb
CONAKRY, Nov 18 (Reuters) - The winner of Guinea’s first free presidential election appealed to rivals on Thursday to end violent protests, and a think tank said attacks on civilians by undisciplined troops risked starting a wider ethnic conflict.
Gunshots rang out overnight as security forces clamped down on clashes between former prime minister Cellou Dalien Diallo’s mainly ethnic Peul supporters and the mostly Malinke backers of the poll’s winner, Alpha Conde.
Despite calls for calm from both candidates and from foreign powers, Guinea has suffered three days of violence since Conde was announced winner of a tight race, leading, according to one pan-African rights group, to at least 10 deaths and 200 wounded.
Conde said in an interview with broadcaster France 24 that he understood the frustrations of Diallo’s supporters but added: “I have to make them understand that smashing houses is not what will help develop the country.”
“Guinea has such challenges that we can’t waste our time in frivolous opposition but each of us should have a common program that is to get Guinea out of this misery.”
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Guinea’s former colonial master France urged Guineans to remain “calm and responsible” and issued an advisory warning its citizens against all travel to the West African nation.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council, in a statement, deplored the violence and called on political leaders to restrain their supporters.
The election was the first free vote held in Guinea since independence from France in 1958 and is meant to end two years of military rule. Investors are hoping it can bring stability to the country, the world’s top exporter of aluminum ore bauxite.
A Reuters witness said the streets of Conakry were largely calm on Thursday, a day after the army imposed a state of emergency to try to rein in the clashes, a measure that will remain in place until the Supreme Court confirms the results.
There were no further reports of violence in other towns, but the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a statement that heavy handed tactics by security forces against protesters risked causing the conflict to spiral of control.
“Guinea’s ... leaders ... must take urgent measures to halt widespread attacks against defenceless civilians and to prevent political tensions from degenerating into large-scale ethnic violence and regional instability,” it said.
The ICG report said the military was “beating, molesting and shooting defenceless civilians and destroying their property.”
“If Guinea’s security and defence forces do not enforce greater discipline in their ranks, the country could quickly descend into further chaos ... (which) would ruin Guinea’s transition process and endanger the prospects of investment.”
Conde sought to play down fears of an ethnic conflict, saying people had exaggerated the divisions.
Thierno Maadjou Sow, president of the Guinean Human Rights Organisation, said the situation was “very serious” and a political conflict had also degenerated into an ethnic one.
The Peul and the Malinke make up about 40 and 35 percent of the country, respectively. Witnesses have reported gangs of youths on both sides arming themselves with machetes.
“We heard gunfire all night long. The children are terrified,” a resident said from the Simbaya neighbourhood. It was not clear what motivated the gunfire. In past days security forces have been firing warning shots into the air but a hospital source has also reported victims of gunshot wounds.
Christine Fages, France’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, warned French citizens against traveling to the country and said authorities there should ensure security.
Ahead of the run-off, Conde and Diallo agreed to include whoever lost in any future government. No steps have been announced to put this in place so far but Conde reiterated that he was ready to offer Diallo a role.
For now, Diallo is challenging in the Supreme Court the results that handed Conde a win with 52.5 percent. He has accused the security forces of organising a wave of repression.
The court is due to announce its decision by next Tuesday.
Despite the uncertainty over the last two years, investors have lined up billions of dollars in planned mining projects and are looking for greater stability to move forward with them. (Additional reporting John Irish; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by David Lewis and Peter Graff)