At least three people have been shot dead during anti-government protests in Congo Republic on Tuesday, during demonstrations attended by thousands of opposition supporters in the capital of Brazzaville who were protesting against an upcoming referendum that they say is aimed at keeping President Denis Sassou Nguesso in power.
The deaths were reported by a Reuters journalist who saw the bodies at the central morgue in Brazzaville. A witness who brought one of the bodies to the morgue said his friend had been shot by security forces. "I was there when they opened fire. I was lucky it wasn't me who was killed," he told Reuters, declining to give his name.
Waving banners reading "Sassou get out" and "No to the referendum," protesters gathered in several central neighborhoods in defiance of a government ban on public meetings issued on Monday. Tuesday's protests escalated when police fired tear gas and warning shots into the crowd.
The 71-year-old former military commander has ruled the central African country, which is also known as Congo-Brazzaville, for total of 32 years since 1979, during two separate stints in power. The leader's previous 13-year-reign expired after he lost to the opposition in the 1992 election. He came back into power in 1997 after a brief civil war in the country came to an end, but he was not officially elected until 2002. The opposition made claims of fraud in both the 2002 and 2009 elections.
The country's 2002 constitution limits the number of presidential terms to two and disqualifies candidates who are over 70 years old. The proposed constitutional reform, which will go to a referendum on Sunday, would remove the age limit on the presidency and could also restart the clock on presidential terms.
Before the protests, mobile internet services, SMS text messaging, and broadcasts by France's world service RFI were all cut in a move to deter mobilization on the streets. During Tuesday's demonstration, marchers quickly scattered after the police opened fire, but many remained on the streets, burning tires and erecting barricades on several major thoroughfares.
A witness said he saw at least two wounded protesters, and reported that shops, schools, and government buildings remained closed.
"People are demonstrating across the city. The police are firing tear gas bombs," said Tresor Nzila, executive director of Congolese Observatory of Human Rights. "In certain places, the police have fired warning shots with live fire."
Sassou Nguesso has yet to confirm whether he wants to run for another term in 2016, but in July participants in a political forum — one that was boycotted by the opposition — issued a communiqué approving the changing of constitutional age and term limits.
As the government moves forward with the referendum to alter the constitution, today's protest is just the latest in a series of opposition demonstrations against such a move. On September 27, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital city of Brazzaville.
Sassou Nguesso's potential third term bid comes as other leaders in the region pursue similar efforts, while others have become embroiled in controversy over attempts to extend their rule. Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza pushed back against public unrest and international condemnation earlier this year to win a third-term election. Meanwhile, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Democratic Republic of Congo's Joseph Kabila both appear to be eyeing bids in upcoming elections if their parliaments succeed in altering two-term limits set out in both constitutions.