Sierra Leone imposes nationwide curfew amid deadly anti-government protests

FREETOWN, Aug 10 (Reuters) - At least two police officers and one civilian died after a day of anti-government protests in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, staff at the city's main mortuary said on Wednesday.

Sierra Leone's government previously said there had been deaths, but did not say how many, as protesters threw rocks and burned tyres in the streets out of frustration at worsening economic hardship and other issues.

The West African country, which has been struggling with rising inflation and a fuel crisis, imposed a nationwide curfew from 3 p.m. local time (1500 GMT) in a bid to stem the violence.

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"As a government, we have the responsibility to protect every citizen of Sierra Leone. What happened today was unfortunate and will be fully investigated," said President Julius Maada Bio on Twitter.

In addition to the three bodies at the mortuary, a Reuters reporter saw another civilian body on a street in eastern Freetown.

The police chief and spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Videos on social media verified by Reuters showed large crowds of protesters and piles of burning tyres in parts of the capital, Freetown. Other footage showed a group of young men throwing rocks on a street filled with whitish smoke.

"People are upset about the country's justice system which is sickening, daily price rises and economic hardship," said Daniel Alpha Kamara, a university student.

The violence started at around 10:30 a.m. local time, he said, when he saw clouds of tear gas rising up outside his dormitory room.

"These unscrupulous individuals have embarked on a violent and unauthorised protest which has led to the loss of lives of innocent Sierra Leoneans, including security personnel," said Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh in a video address.

"The government hereby declares a nationwide curfew," he said. "The security sector has been authorised to fully enforce this directive."

Regional political and economic bloc ECOWAS said it condemned the violence and called in a Twitter post for "all to obey law and order and for the perpetrators of the violence to be identified and brought before the law."

Discontent has been boiling over for a number of reasons, including a perceived lack of government support for ordinary people who are struggling, said Augustine Sorie-Sengbe Marrah, a constitutional lawyer and governance activist.

"There has been little empathy from the central government to encourage folks that they see them suffering, and that they understand these are tough economic times," he told Reuters.

Long-standing frustration has also been exacerbated by rising prices for basic goods in Sierra Leone, where more than half the population of around 8 million lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

Earlier on Wednesday, internet observatory NetBlocks said Sierra Leone faced a near-total internet shutdown during the protests, with national connectivity at 5% of ordinary levels.

On Tuesday, the national security coordinator asked the armed forces to be prepared to back up the police from Aug. 9-12, warning of a "potentially volatile security situation", according to an internal letter shared widely online.

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Reporting by Cooper Inveen and Umaru Fofana; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Anait Miridzhanian; Editing by Mike Harrison and Alistair Bell

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