Gunbattles rocked the capital of the Congo Republic on Monday, shattering a relative calm that had followed President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s re-election in a disputed poll last month.
The fighting between security forces and unidentified gunmen was some of the worst to hit Brazzaville since 1997, when Sassou Nguesso returned to power after months of urban warfare between rival militia groups in the capital.
He had previously ruled the oil-producing country from 1979 until he lost an election in 1992.
Witnesses said young opposition supporters chanted “Sassou, leave!”, erected barricades near the main roundabout in southern Brazzaville’s Makelekele neighborhood and set fire to the local mayor’s office and police headquarters.
The gunfire broke out in the opposition strongholds of Makelekele and Bacongo at 3 a.m. local time (0200 GMT) and lasted until 6 a.m. It resumed around 8 a.m. and intensified in late morning as military helicopters patrolled southern Brazzaville, witnesses said. Heavy weapons fire could be heard.
Hundreds of residents of southern Brazzaville, some carrying their possessions on their heads, fled their neighborhoods on foot toward the north of the city.
Government officials could not be reached for comment, but state television said people who rejected the president’s victory in the March 20 election were responsible.
“The people woke up this morning in fear because there was gunfire. The reason for that is that there are people who contest these elections,” said a presenter on Tele Congo.
ELECTION FRAUD ALLEGED
The channel said the government was expected to make a statement on the violence.
Sassou Nguesso won re-election on March 20 after pushing through constitutional changes in an October referendum to remove age and term limits that would have prevented him from standing again.
At least 18 people were killed by security forces during opposition demonstrations before the referendum.
Opposition candidates say the election was a fraud and have called for a campaign of civil disobedience. A general strike last week was largely observed in southern Brazzaville but ignored in the north of the city, where Sassou Nguesso is popular.
The U.S. State Department said after the election it had received numerous reports of irregularities and criticized the government’s decision to cut all telecommunications including internet services during voting and for days afterwards.
On Monday the U.S. embassy said on its Facebook page there was heavy gunfire and it would provide only limited operations.
There was no immediate comment from the opposition. The father of Guy Kolelas, who came second to Sassou Nguesso in the March election, was a crucial figure in the 1997 civil war and sporadic clashes with the government in the years that followed.