United States calls on Djibouti to show restraint ahead of vote

NAIROBI (Reuters) - The United States has urged Djibouti to work with the opposition to ensure a peaceful presidential election next year after a religious celebration turned violent, stoking fears of a return to street protests ahead the vote.

Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh (L) arrives to attend Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Omdurman, June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Djibouti, which hosts the only U.S. military base in Africa, has faced sporadic violence before, usually triggered by demonstrations against the government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who is seeking a fourth term in April.

On Monday, an opposition group said 19 people were gunned down by police and the government said seven people were killed after the celebration was overtaken by an armed mob.

“We urge the government of Djibouti to respect its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and association, and to exercise restraint,” the U.S. State Department said in statement issued late on Wednesday.

“We call on the government of Djibouti and all political stakeholders to engage in dialogue to prevent further violence” and to “ensure peaceful and transparent presidential elections in 2016”.

In parliamentary polls in the Horn of Africa country in 2013, protesters clashed with police saying the results were rigged, a charge the government denied.

In 2011, anti-government demonstrators in the country of about 876,000 people were buoyed by the Arab Spring revolutions and demanded Guelleh step down. The authorities cracked down hard on the opposition.

Officials in Djibouti could not immediately be reached for comment, but earlier this week Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf told Reuters he was “optimistic that the security of the country is not at stake”.

“Everyone has a right to run. I think the opposition knows this, and there is no reason to create chaos just to avoid the president to run again,” he said.

The former French colony’s port has been used by foreign navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden’s shipping lanes, some of the busiest in the world. Djibouti also hosts French military bases.

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove repeated extraneous first paragraph)

Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Alison Williams