Thousands flee gunbattles in Brazzaville

2016-04-04 20:22
Residents of the southern districts of Brazzaville flee clashes between Congolese security forces and unknown assailants. (Stringer, AFP)

Residents of the southern districts of Brazzaville flee clashes between Congolese security forces and unknown assailants. (Stringer, AFP)

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Brazzaville - Thousands fled fighting in Congo's capital Brazzaville on Monday as the government blamed heavy clashes in southern opposition bastions on a rebel group known as "The Ninjas".

Streams of people panicked by gunfire could be seen headed north with bags and children, fleeing districts loyal to the opposition, which is contesting President Denis Sassou Nguesso's re-election.

In a televised statement, government spokesperson Thierry Moungalla blamed the fighting on "disbanded Ninja Nsiloulou" fighters, saying they attacked an army position as well as four police stations.

The clashes erupted as Congo's Constitutional Court examines results from the March 20 presidential election won by veteran leader Sassou Nguesso, but denounced by five defeated candidates who have alleged "massive fraud".

According to several witnesses, the crackle of automatic gunfire began after 02:00 (01:00 GMT) in southern Makelekele and Mayana districts, and continued without stop until dawn.

Several explosions were heard and two police stations reportedly torched in the restive run-down districts, witnesses said.

"Soldiers came and told us to leave before it was too late, now we don't know where to go," said a 24-year-old student who gave her name as Mercie.

'Investigations ongoing' 

By 08:15, the gunfire had become more sporadic although witnesses across the Congo river in northern Kinshasa, capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, also reported hearing explosions.

Spokesperson Moungalla said the Makelekele town hall was torched.

In mid-morning hundreds of police and troops, some in armoured vehicles, fanned out across the city's southern areas.

The former Ninja militias from a 1990s civil war are headed by Protestant preacher Frederic Bintsamou, known as Pasteur Ntumi, whose trademark colour is purple and who had disbanded the group in return for a junior government position.

The government spokesman said the trouble had erupted in the wake of the March vote, which he dubbed "a great moment of peaceful democracy".

In an apparent reference to the opposition, he said the government "does not yet have proof that candidates or their supporters are involved in this affair" but that it intended "to advise national and international opinion that investigations are ongoing."

'Terrified'

Security forces threw up roadblocks on the main road between the south and the city centre, stopping all cars for checks.

"I couldn't stand the sound of the bullets and the heavy arms, I'm terrified," a 55-year-old called Jerome told AFP.

Sassou Nguesso, a former paratrooper colonel in office for 32 years, was declared winner with over 60% of the vote.

Last week, several southern districts observed a strike called in protest over the results in a country of biting poverty where oil riches only benefit a fraction of the population.

Congo has been on edge since an October constitutional referendum that ended a two-term limit on presidential mandates, allowing the head of state to run again.

Critics accuse the president of rampant corruption and nepotism, blasting the referendum result as a "constitutional coup".

Former colonial power France on Monday called for "restraint" and urged French citizens to stay at home.

Sassou Nguesso served as president from 1979 to 1992 and returned to power in 1997 following a civil war.

He won two successive terms in 2002 and 2009, but both elections were contested by opposition parties.

Read more on:    republic of congo

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