COTONOU (Reuters) - Security forces in Benin’s capital Cotonou on Thursday fired weapons to disperse crowds protesting against the exclusion of opposition parties from last Sunday’s parliamentary election, Reuters witnesses said.
Hundreds of people have been protesting since Wednesday, burning tires and calling for President Patrice Talon to step down, rare unrest in the country of 11 million, and long seen as a bastion of stability in West Africa.
Security forces, backed by armored military vehicles, used firearms to break up the protest, two Reuters witnesses said. It was not clear if they were using live rounds or firing directly at the crowd.
A video widely shared online appeared to show government forces firing guns and using water cannon. It was not immediately possible to verify the footage.
A Reuters witness saw two wounded protesters, one bleeding heavily.
Police declined to comment and there was no confirmation on the number of casualties.
The United Nations called for restraint.
“We note with concern the ongoing tensions and unrest, resulting in the destruction of property and high-handed response from the security forces,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
The unrest followed the electoral commission’s decision to bar opposition parties from standing in the election because they were unable to meet strict criteria under a new election law to field candidates. Talon denied that was the intention of the law.
There was rioting in central Benin on Sunday, where opposition supporters burned houses, officials said.
Results announced on Tuesday gave two parties loyal to Talon total control of parliament. Supporters of Talon’s rival, ex-president Thomas Boni Yayi launched protests.
Talon and Boni Yayi have a tense relationship. In 2012, Boni Yayi accused Talon, a cotton magnate, of trying to have him poisoned. Talon denied the accusations at the time.
Talon defeated Boni Yayi’s preferred successor in a 2016 election when Boni Yayi was required by term limits to step down after 10 years in power.
In the run-up to the latest election, police dispersed a protest led by Boni Yayi with teargas. The authorities also cut off the internet on the day of the vote.
Additional reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Aaron Ross; Editing by Edward McAllister, Janet Lawrence and Alison Williams