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Four dead in Congo as protesters defy clampdown

Brazzaville: Four people have been killed and 10 injured in the Republic of Congo, according to officials, as demonstrators braved a government clampdown and took to the streets to protest the president’s bid for a third term in office.

The violence yesterday prompted urgent calls for calm from a visiting senior US official and Amnesty International.

Clashes erupted after authorities banned a protest rally against next Sunday’s referendum on President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s bid to extend a three-decade stay in office.

Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou told state TV the “organised and coordinated insurrection” had led to three fatalities in the capital Brazzaville and a fourth in the southern town of Pointe-Noire.

Three members of the security forces were also seriously injured, he added, while 16 arrests were made in Brazzaville.

“The symbols of the republic, such as the police headquarters (or) gendarmerie brigades, were targeted,” he said.

The vote proposes increasing the maximum age of presidential candidates, currently 70, and scrapping a rule that limits the maximum number of seven-year terms to two.

“The United States strongly urges all parties, including both the government and the opposition, to engage in dialogue and to refrain from violent actions that would undermine the hard-won peace that all citizens deserve,” Sarah Sewall, under-secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, said at a press conference in Kinshasa.

The human rights group Amnesty also issued a statement, urging security personnel to refrain from using “excessive force” against protesters.

Ahead of the rally, tensions mounted quickly after the president’s office broadcast a message on radio and TV saying people were expected to work “as normal” and that gatherings were “banned”.

But shops remained shuttered and schools and offices were closed across most of the city as young protesters took to the streets and torched tyres in the southern Makelekele district and in Bacongo in the west.

Police opened fire several times.

Sources at Makelekele hospital said five people were seriously wounded by gunfire, and two others were injured by shrapnel from teargas grenades. An AFP correspondent saw another person being brought to hospital with a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

Makelekele’s police station was torched as were two others west of the city centre, witnesses said.

Residents said police fired teargas from helicopters.

Throughout the day in both Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, the country’s economic capital, mobile Internet and SMS messaging services were unavailable as was the signal for France’s Radio France Internationale (RFI), one of the country’s most popular broadcasters.