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Guinea's Union Leaders Assess New Offer

Union leaders in Guinea are assessing President Lansana Conté's willingness to name a new consensus prime minister, but have vowed to pursue a nationwide strike, now in its third week, until they see concrete steps toward change. Naomi Schwarz reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Thousands took to the streets in the eastern town of Kankan, demanding immediate change, despite President Lansana Conté's agreement Wednesday to appoint a new prime minister. Some protesters warned union leaders not to be duped by Mr. Conté.

In the streets of the capital, Conakry, residents once again ventured onto the streets in search of the daily necessities that have been hard to find since the strike began, 16 days ago.

"A 50-kilogram sack of rice used to sell for about $20 before the strike," says local journalist Maseco Condé. "Now the same sack of rice costs $37."

He adds that in all of Conakry, there are only three open gas stations, all downtown. There were reports of huge lines at these stations as people took advantage of the break in protests to stock up.

Union leaders said the strike would continue until they are satisfied that Mr. Conté's promise to appoint a new consensus prime minister would become a reality, and that their other conditions would be met.

Lamine Sarr Touré , the assistant general-secretary of the National Council of Guinean Workers, says: "We are waiting for the details. We want the prime minister truly to become the chief of state."

Dustin Sharp, an analyst for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, says that President Conté needs to take concrete steps to ensure that a prime minister will have real power.

"To make it meaningful they will have to amend the constitution, they will have to delineate the powers of the prime minister, and they will have to clearly delineate between the powers of the prime minister and the president," he said.

Otherwise, Sharp says, there could be a repeat of what happened last April, when reformist prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo was fired.

Sharp says that it may have been Monday's brutal military crackdown against protesters in Conakry that forced Mr. Conté to make last night's concession.

"The crackdown has really put Guinea under a magnifying glass," he said. "It has brought the condemnation of the of the European Union, of ECOWAS, African Union, not to mention international civil society. And it is that pressure, I think, that has contributed, at least a little bit, to bringing the government back to the table."

Mr. Conté, a reclusive diabetic in his seventies, came to power in a 1984 coup. In a public speech before the security crackdown, he said that, "Those who want power must wait their turn."

Dozens of people have died in protests since the strike began.