"Guinean security forces are using martial law as an excuse to terrorise ordinary Guineans," Peter Takirambudde, Human Rights Watch's Africa director, said in a statement on Friday.

"Under the guise of reestablishing law and order, they're acting like common criminals, beating, robbing and brutalizing the population they're supposed to protect," he added.

Although martial law appeared to have largely restored order, the killings of more than 120 people, mostly unarmed civilians, since early January have drawn condemnation of Conte's government.

Political deal

Former colonial power France, hosting a summit of African leaders in Cannes, led calls for Conte's government to seek a peaceful political deal acceptable to all sides.
 
Jacques Chirac, the French president, said: "We have adopted a resolution ... firmly calling on Guinean authorities to get out of the impasse, to protect the civilian population, to launch a political process."

Chirac said French aeroplanes and ships were ready to evacuate, if necessary, about 2,000 French citizens from Guinea, as well as Lebanese, US and other citizens.
 
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it was sending Ibrahim Babangida, former Nigerian president, to Guinea at the weekend to try to broker a settlement.

'Sporadic shooting'

Guinean officials sought to fend off the criticism, saying security forces had faced looters, escaped prisoners and protesters who had obtained arms smuggled into the country.
 
Rabiatou Serah Diallo, left, has demanded
the president lift martial law [AFP]
"We regret the sporadic shooting by uncontrolled elements, sometimes dressed in military uniform," Kerfala Camara, army chief of staff, told state radio late on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch cited witnesses in Conakry's suburbs as saying that security forces, especially the presidential guard, had searched private homes, breaking down doors and stealing cell phones, cameras, and money.
 
"[They] have seriously beaten individuals with clubs and rifle butts, and have even shot and wounded individuals protesting the theft of their household goods," the group said.
 
Human Rights Watch said security forces had been responsible for at least 22 killings in the past five days.

It cited other sources as saying at least three women had been raped by uniformed personnel, including soldiers.

Negotiations

Camara told the Associated Press news agency that a commission had been formed to look into the allegations of abuse but warned that the unions must reach an agreement with the government before martial law would be lifted.

"The state of siege will never be lifted before negotiations find a solution," but could be "re-examined if there's a change in people's behaviour," he said.

The two sides are planning to meet on Saturday after they failed to reach a deal on Thursday.

Rabiatou Serah Diallo, a union leader, had demanded that Conte lift martial law to stop the suffering of Guinea's people. She said she was not asking for Conte to step down, but to honour his agreement and name a new prime minister, Mohamed Cheikh, deputy spokesman for the majority party in the national assembly, said.

Guinean authorities have eased restrictions at the country's main bauxite mine, Sangaredi, on Friday to allow a restart of halted exports of bauxite, the economic lifeblood of the country.
 
Guinea is the world's leading shipper of the bauxite ore from which aluminium is extracted.