Gabon’s opposition leader said security forces killed two people and injured 19 more at his headquarters Thursday, as violence erupted after President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of contested polls.
Thousands of angry protesters took to the streets of Libreville accusing the government of stealing the election after Bongo won a second term by a razor-thin margin over rival Jean Ping.
Gunfire crackled across the city and plumes of smoke billowed from the torched parliament building as anti-government protesters clashed with heavily armed security forces.
Security forces surrounded the opposition headquarters overnight and stormed the building, killing two and injuring more than a dozen there, according to Ping.
“They attacked around 1:00 am (0000 GMT). It is the Republican Guard. They were bombarding with helicopters and then they attacked on the ground. There are 19 people injured, some of them very seriously,” said Ping, who was not himself at the party headquarters.
The president of the opposition National Union party, Zacharie Myboto, who was inside the besieged building, said security forces were hurling tear gas canisters and had opened fire.
“For nearly an hour the building has been surrounded. They want to enter the building… it is extremely violent,” he said shortly after the siege began.
A government spokesman said the operation was to catch “criminals” who had earlier set fire to the parliament building.
“Armed people who set fire to the parliament had gathered at Jean Ping’s headquarters along with hundreds of looters and thugs… they were not political protesters but criminals,” said Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze.
A heavy military and police presence had brought large parts of Libreville to a standstill and internet access has also been cut.
“We have said that the people of Gabon are in danger. They (the international community) should come and help us against the clan (of Bongo),” Ping told AFP.
The results of the presidential election, announced earlier Wednesday, handed Bongo a second term and extended the nearly five decade-long rule by his family.
However, the results — which gave Bongo 49.8 percent to Ping’s 48.23 percent (a gap of less than 6,000 votes) — remain “provisional” until approved by the constitutional court.
Lack of transparency
The opposition has described the election as fraudulent and called for results from each of Gabon’s polling stations to be made public to ensure the credibility of the overall outcome — a demand echoed by the United States and European Union.
“This will help give the people of Gabon — as well as the international community — confidence the announced vote tallies are accurate,” said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Ping told France’s Europe 1 radio early Thursday: “Everyone knows that he (Bongo) cheated. Ask in Europe. Everyone knows.”
EU observers have said the vote was “managed in a way that lacked transparency” and opposition delegates in the electoral commission have already vowed to fight for a recount.
Any appeal by Ping — a veteran diplomat and former top African Union official who had earlier declared himself the poll winner — would likely focus on disputed results in Haut-Ogooue province, the heartland of Bongo’s Teke ethnic group.
In Saturday’s vote, turnout was 59.46 percent nationwide but soared to 99.93 percent in Haut-Ogooue, where Bongo won 95.5 percent of votes.
“It’s going to be difficult to get people to accept these results,” one member of the electoral commission told AFP, asking not to be named.
“We’ve never seen results like these, even during the father’s time,” he added.
‘Let’s change together’
Bongo took power in 2009 in a violence-marred election that followed the death of his father Omar Bongo, who had governed the oil-rich former French colony for 41 years.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for calm and voiced concern over the clashes and arson, urging political leaders “to address their differences peacefully and to address any disputes they may have through existing constitutional and legal channels.”
Former colonial power France said it was “extremely concerned” by the situation and urged “maximum restraint” on all sides.
One third of Gabon’s population lives in poverty, despite the country boasting one of Africa’s highest per capita incomes at $8,300 (7,400 euros) thanks to pumping 200,000 barrels of oil a day.
Bongo, 57, campaigned under the slogan “Let’s change together”, playing up the roads and hospitals built during his first term and stressing the need to break with the bad old days of disappearing public funds and suspect management of oil revenues.