Gun battles rocked the capital of Congo Republic on Monday, shattering a relative calm that had followed President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s re-election in a disputed poll last month.
Former members of the “Ninja” militia that fought Sassou Nguesso in a 1997 civil war raided and set alight military, police and local government offices but the attacks have been contained, said government spokesman Thierry Moungalla.
Opposition leader Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas came second in the March 20 election and his father led the Ninjas during the civil war. The group signed a peace accord with the government in 2003 after years of sporadic clashes, though rivalries persist along regional and ethnic lines.
Kolelas was not involved in the attacks, an aide said.
“The government … does not yet have proof that the candidates or their supporters were involved in this affair but … investigations are under way,” government spokesman Moungalla said on state television.
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. Opposition supporters say they are frustrated in the wake of the March 20 election that one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers can extend a tenure that has already totalled 32 years.
Witnesses said young opposition supporters chanted “Sassou, leave!”, erected barricades near the main roundabout in southern Brazzaville’s Makelekele neighbourhood 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 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 neighbourhoods on foot toward the north of the city.
Dozens of heavily-armed Republican Guard troops and police later headed towards the Kingouari neighbourhood of southern Brazzaville, where isolated gunfire persisted in the afternoon, while some residents took refuge in Catholic churches.
Sassou Nguesso won re-election 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 against the referendum changes.
Opposition candidates say the March vote was a fraud and have called for a campaign of civil disobedience. A general strike last week held in southern Brazzaville but was ignored in the north of the city, where Sassou Nguesso is popular.
Michel Rodriguez Abiabouti, a spokesman for opposition leader and retired general Jean-Marie Mokoko, who came third in the election, said Mokoko’s house had been searched and no weapons were found.
“The other opposition candidates don’t have weapons. They were chased and mistreated (during the campaign) but they wanted, at any price, to go to the election,” he told Reuters.
The U.S. State Department said after the election it had received numerous reports of irregularities and criticised 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.