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article imageThousands flee gunbattles in Congo capital after disputed polls

By AFP     Apr 4, 2016 in World

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

There was no official toll from what was called "a terrorist action" by the government, which said it was investigating whether the assailants were linked to opposition leaders contesting President Denis Sassou Nguesso's re-election at March 20 polls.

Streams of people panicked by gunfire could be seen headed north with their children and carrying bags, fleeing districts loyal to the opposition south of the city.

In a televised statement early afternoon, government spokesman Thierry Moungalla said the situation was "under control" and called on people to "remain calm and return to their usual business."

Fighting in Brazzaville
Fighting in Brazzaville
, Graphics/AFP

He blamed the fighting on "disbanded Ninja Nsiloulou" fighters, saying they had attacked an army position as well as four police stations.

The rebel group from a late 1990s conflict was headed by Protestant preacher Frederic Bintsamou, known as Pasteur Ntumi, whose trademark colour is purple and who disbanded the group in return for a junior government position.

He recently came out in favour of presidential candidate Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, who ran second to Sassou Nguesso in last month's vote.

The clashes erupted as Congo's Constitutional Court examines results denounced by the five defeated candidates who have alleged "massive fraud".

"We live in a country where, whether you vote or not, peace is always under threat," said a woman in the city's south who gave her name only as Julienne.

- 'Investigations ongoing' -

Security forces stand guard as residents of the southern districts of Brazzaville flee clashes betwe...
Security forces stand guard as residents of the southern districts of Brazzaville flee clashes between Congolese security forces and unknown assailants on April 4, 2016
STRINGER, AFP

According to several witnesses, the crackle of automatic gunfire began after 2:00 am (0100 GMT) in the 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.

By 8:15 am, 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.

Spokesman Moungalla said the Makelekele town hall was torched.

Police officers search residents of the southern districts of Brazzaville fleeing clashes between Co...
Police officers search residents of the southern districts of Brazzaville fleeing clashes between Congolese security forces and unknown assailants on April 4, 2016
STRINGER, AFP

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

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 on March 24 with over 60 percent 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.

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