BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Security forces in Congo Republic’s capital fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters, a day after police killed four opposition supporters.
Protests began in early October against a referendum that critics say is a ploy by President Denis Sassou Nguesso to prolong his grip on power, much as protests have broken out in Burundi, Burkina Faso and other African counties where leaders tried to remain in power.
Sunday’s vote in Congo Republic will decide whether to amend the constitution to raise the age limit and number of terms a president can serve. If the changes are made, 71-year-old Sassou Nguesso is widely expected to run for re-election next year, although he has not stated his intention to do so. He has been in office 31 of the past 36 years.
Early on Wednesday, the crowd marched towards the police station in the southern district of Makelekele chanting anti-government slogans and “We will rise up”.
They built barricades and burnt tyres as army reinforcements arrived to support police, who had been forced to withdraw. Residents carrying belongings on their heads fled the area amid a thick cloud of tear gas, a Reuters witness said.
By midday, most protesters had withdrawn from the street. Police later arrested and briefly detained 18 opposition activists who were attempting to hold a press conference in the Diata neighborhood of the capital, witnesses said.
Authorities opened an investigation into activists, including Clement Miérassa and Guy Romain Kifouissia, for possession of Molotov cocktails and summoned them to appear on Thursday before the prosecutor, said state prosecutor Oko Ngatse Ngakala.
“This is a total fabrication,” Mierassa told Reuters, speaking of the accusation.
On Tuesday, four people were killed when police opened fire on protesters in both Brazzaville and the coastal oil hub Pointe-Noire.
Interior Minister Raymond Zephyrin Mboulou condemned Tuesday’s protests in a radio address overnight and warned leaders and participants they would be held accountable.
Sixteen people have been called in for interrogation over the protests in which three members of the security forces were seriously wounded and the houses of five politicians set ablaze, he said.
Western response to the protests was muted.
“Sassou can consult his people. That’s part of his right and the people must respond,” French President Francois Hollande said in a statement. Opposition leaders vowed to organize further protests and to boycott Sunday’s vote.
“We are using all democratic means so that Sassou Nguesso cannot succeed in his project,” said Guy Romain Kinfoussia, a senior member of opposition alliance FROCAD, in an interview late on Tuesday. “We will be back on the streets.”
Francois Conradie, analyst at South Africa-based NKC Independent Economists, warned that violence in Congo Republic was likely to get worse this week. Ethnic tension and an expected rise in oil wealth are raising the stakes, he said.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau in Paris; Writing by Emma Farge and Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Larry King