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Gunfire, Protests, and Flames: People Want the Republic of the Congo's President Gone

Two weeks after a disputed election, police clashed with unidentified gunmen and youth opposition members set two state buildings on fire in Brazzaville.

by Kayla Ruble
Apr 4 2016, 4:14pm

Photo by Alon Skuy/EPA

Simmering anger against the Republic of the Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso seemed to boil over on Monday in Brazzaville, with gunfire ringing out across the capital city and youths affiliated with the political opposition reportedly lighting a police station and another government building on fire.

While police engaged in a firefight with unidentified gunmen for several hours in Brazzaville's Bacongo and Makelekele neighborhoods, a demonstration also broke out in Makelekele that saw protesters chanting "Sassou, leave!" a slogan that has been used by the opposition movement over the last several months against the president.

Last summer, Sassou Nguesso began the process of amending the country's constitution to remove both a two-term limit and an age restriction that would have barred the 72-year-old leader from seeking re-election again. Sassou Nguesso has ruled the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) for 32 of the last 39 years. He first rose to power in 1979, ruling until he was democratically voted out in 1992, and then reclaiming power in 1997 during the country's civil war.

After the government announced plans to hold a constitutional referendum on the changes, an opposition movement organized protests in the capital. The demonstrations ultimately 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.

Related: Congo's Youth-Led Protest Movement Vows to Keep Fighting, After a Disputed Referendum

Sassou Nguesso claimed another victory in presidential elections at the end of March, but a coalition of opposition candidates disputed the results. According to the government, Sassou Nguesso won 60 percent of the vote, enough avoid a runoff. The opposition claims that its top candidates — former army general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and opposition party leader Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas — both surpassed Sassou Nguesso in the polls, taking 28 and 30 percent of the vote, respectively.

In a statement issued on Monday, Mokoko's campaign said that government security forces were using heavy arms during the clashes in the capital, and that the fighting was in response to a rash of arrests and detentions that has been ongoing since the electoral dispute. The campaign also sent photos that purportedly showed a police building in flames, and a street barricade erected by members of the anti-Sassou Nguesso youth movement.

Photos via Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko campaign

It's currently unclear who exactly launched the attack on Monday. An announcer on the state television channel Tele Congo blamed the gunfire on opposition groups that rejected the president's electoral victory last month.

"The people woke up this morning in fear because there was gunfire," the Tele Congo host said, according to Reuters. "The reason for that is that there are people who contest these elections."

The government also reportedly blamed Monday's unrest on the Ninjas, a rebel group that has been active in the country since the 1990s and played a key role in fighting against Sassou Nguesso in the civil war that lasted from 1997 to 1999. The Ninjas did not claim responsibility for the attacks, and the government did not offer any proof to verify their alleged involvement.

Related: Vote Tally Extends Congo Republic Leader's 32-Year Rule as Opposition Cries Foul

Reuters Contributed to this report

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB