Unions call for strike in Guinea

( AP ) - Young men stormed the streets of Guinea, hurling rocks and setting tires ablaze as labor unions called for a strike Friday, threatening to throw the African nation into gridlock.

Police used tear gas to fight back the hundreds of protesters who rioted in suburbs of the capital following a report that the president had fired one of his ministers, said Bakary Drame, the commander of a security force unit in Conakry.

President Lansana Conte grabbed power in a 1984 coup and has refused to let go despite repeated demonstrations that have become increasingly violent. One year ago, a series of strikes spiraled into mass protests. Conte ordered martial law. Tanks rolled into the capital and security forces opened fire on protesters, killing dozens.

Although the unions have not succeeded in forcing Conte to step down, last year's strike brought key concessions, including the naming of a new prime minister from a list approved by the unions. It is that prime minister that has power over appointments and firings - not Conte.

That is why many were incensed when they learned Thursday night of the removal of Information Minister Justin Morel, whose firing was made public in a radio announcement.

"Morel is not Conte's minister ... He can't just remove him like that. We won't accept it," said Mamadou Bory Bah, a student who had gone outside to protest.

Young men ran outside on Thursday night and set fire to tires in the neighborhood of Hamdallaye. They hurled large stones.

By Friday morning, hundreds of protesters had amassed in several key suburbs, prompting security forces to open fire with tear gas.

The mood of insurrection was mirrored in the words of union leaders, who have become emboldened by their success last year in partially curbing Conte's power.

"We're not going to sit back with our arms crossed in the face of these violations," said Ibrahima Fofanah, the secretary-general of the Union of the Guinean Worker, known by its French acronym of USTG.

"We are calling on all Guineans to follow to the letter our order for a strike," he said. The strike, which will be unlimited in its duration will begin Jan. 10.

The majority of Guinea's 10 million people live in poverty, even though the country is the world's largest producer of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum.

The country is seen as potential trigger point for violence in a region recovering from a series of devastating conflicts in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, and continued instability in Ivory Coast.

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