Security forces in the Republic of Congo carried out bombings in civilian areas earlier this month that reportedly killed dozens of people and destroyed schools, churches, and hospitals, according to eyewitness testimonies gathered by Amnesty International. The assault came a day after gunfights broke out in Brazzaville, the capital, over the disputed reelection of President Denis Sassou Nguesso in March.
The human rights organization revealed on Monday that it had corroborated on-the-ground accounts indicating that two government helicopters had dropped upwards of 30 bombs in the southeastern Pool region around the village of Soumouna on April 5, with three elementary schools hit in the process, according to information gathered by Amnesty International.
"Many people have been killed following the bombing. I saw at least 30 dead bodies between Soumouna and Ngula. The air strikes also led to lot of material damage," a local woman told Amnesty. She reportedly fled her home after the assault; various villages surrounding Soumouna are now said to be deserted.
The government was not immediately available to comment following release of the report, but it has denied attacking civilians in the past.
The alleged bombings took place one day after an eruption of early morning gunfire in Brazzaville on April 4. Reports of the events were conflicting, but government forces said they clashed with armed men in the streets after attacks on several government buildings. The fighting took place just as a group of youth opposition members were attempting to hold a demonstration in the Makelekele neighborhood. Some 17 people were reportedly killed in the capital in the days that followed.
The bombings in the region are said to have targeted opposition areas related to the "Ninjas" armed group once led by the former rebel leader Frederic Bintsamouni, more commonly known as Pastor Frederic Ntumi, including one of his former residences. But schools, healthcare centers, and churches were damaged or destroyed.
"Government forces have deliberately and unlawfully attacked people," said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty's Central Africa researcher, charging that the strikes violated international human rights standards. "It is shocking that they bombed residential areas in response to the violence that occurred in Brazzaville on April 4. Instead they should have taken lawful steps to ensure that criminal suspects are brought to justice."
The gunfights earlier this month came just weeks after a controversial presidential election that saw Sassou Nguesso secure another term in power to extend his 32-year rule. The 72-year-old leader has ruled the Republic of Congo since 1979; he was democratically voted out of office in 1992 but took power again in 1997 during a civil war.
He was elected again in 2002 under a new constitution and again in 2009. Last year, his government proposed changes to the constitution to lift both age and term limits that would have otherwise made Sassou Nguesso ineligible for another term. After the government announced plans to hold a constitutional referendum on the changes, a largely youth-led protest movement sprung up on the streets of Brazzaville. The demonstrations turned deadly, with at least 18 people reportedly killed by security forces. The referendum passed in October with a clear majority, though critics accused the government of voter fraud.
In the days and weeks leading up to the March 20 election, opposition politicians like former army General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and opposition party leader Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas saw high turnout at political rallies. Unlike previous elections and the fall referendum, the opposition did not call for a voter boycott. The electoral commission later certified that Sassou Nguesso had secured more than 60 percent of the vote — enough to avoid a runoff.
A coalition of the opposition parties countered that its independent counting found that both Kolelas and Mokoko had received a higher percentage than the incumbent. The southern area of the country targeted in the bombings has historically seen higher levels of opposition support and served as a base for opposition politicians, with the latest election being no exception.
The Pool department where the bombings were allegedly carry out is the home of Kolelas and Pastor Ntumi, who currently holds local office in the district. The government quickly blamed Ntumi and the Ninjas — the insurgent group he commanded during both the 1993 and 1997 civil wars — for being behind the Brazzaville attacks on municipal buildings, which included fires set at two police stations. Kolelas' father, Bernard, founded the Ninjas in the 1990s.
Critics of these accusations say that the Ninjas disbanded more than a decade ago, however, and that Ntumi does not have the capability to carry out armed attacks.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB