Mon, Feb 19, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Guinea's union leaders demand end to martial law

AFP , CONAKRY

Guinea's union leaders refused on Saturday to start talks to end unrest that has claimed more than 100 lives until martial law is lifted, union officials said.

"For the moment the meeting is canceled. We asked for the lifting of martial law, security for union members, an end to night house searches and the carnage," said Rabiatou Serah Diallo, secretary general of the National Confederation of Guinean Workers.

Labor unions are a powerful voice in Guinea and were the dominant forces behind a crippling general strike on Jan. 10 that escalated into deadly political unrest against President Lansana Conte, claiming at least 113 lives.

Ailing and aging Conte called a state of martial law last week, imposing a strict curfew in an effort to bring the troubled west African country under control.

During the first days of that curfew security forces killed four people in the central town of Labe during a demonstration.

The government remained defiant, saying martial law would only be lifted once the situation became calm.

"We are giving the unions until Monday [today] to decide. If they don't come [to the next meeting], we will draw the necessary conclusions," said the parliament's speaker, Aboubacar Sompare. "Without martial law there will be violence. Martial law will be lifted when there is no more danger."

The situation has worried Guinea's neighbors over unrest spreading across the region, and has attracted sharp criticism from the US and human rights groups.

On Saturday a delegation from the 15-nation Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) was in Conakry for talks with Conte and members of the diplomatic community.

"The leadership of ECOWAS decided they should get involved to find ways and means of finding a solution to the present impasse in the country," delegation member Ibrahima Babangida, a former Nigerian president, told a news conference.

"We wouldn't like to see Guinea run into a very chaotic situation ... From the experiences we've got with wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bissau Guinea, I think we should find a solution here," he added.

Human rights groups have criticized the imposition of martial law, due to end on Friday, with the US last Friday saying it condemned "the abrogation of basic human freedoms."

In a statement, the US said releasing the military onto the streets of the country was not helping the volatile situation.

"The declaration of martial law and the accompanying restrictions on civil liberties are not conducive to the political dialogue that Guinea so desperately needs," the statement said.

The UN said on Friday that it had agreed to send just over US$2 million of urgent humanitarian aid to the country.

The unions are refusing to back Eugene Camara as a replacement for the 72-year-old Conte, claiming he is too close to the embattled president.

In June 2005, a year after Conte's swearing-in for a third term of office, the global think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that Guinea risked becoming another failed state.

The ICG also accused the president of stoking conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

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