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Unrest rocks Gabon after disputed vote

LIBREVILLE, Sep 4 – Gabon slapped an overnight curfew on its economic hub Port-Gentil as opposition supporters have gone on the rampage after the son of the oil-rich nation’s late leader was declared winner of a bitter presidential election.

"The curfew went into effect on Thursday from 8 pm (1900 GMT) to 6 am" on Friday and will be repeated as long as necessary if calm does not prevail, the interior ministry said after protesters torched a French consulate in the city of 80,000 and attacked a prison.

Disturbances were also reported in several districts of the political capital Libreville after officials said Ali Bongo had won the contest to succeed his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, with around 42 percent of the vote.

Crowds of young men chanted "Death to the Whites" as Paris told around 10,000 French nationals not to leave their homes amid rumours the former colonial power had conspired to fix the result.

The shells of burnt-out cars littered highways around the capital while demonstrators had set fire to piles of tyres and erected makeshift barricades.

By nightfall, Libreville’s streets were all but deserted except for the police and army.

A number of youths suspected of being involved in violence in Libreville were arrested, public television and a witness said.

"Measures are in place to ensure the security of French citizens … It is recommended to French people to stay at home," international development minister Alain Joyandet told AFP in Paris.

He said that around 80 French soldiers — out of 1,000 stationed at France’s permanent base in the country — had been "called out" in Port-Gentil following the attack on the consulate and on French companies Total and Schlumberger.

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Violence also erupted in Nkembo, east of the capital. "People are breaking anything that they can, they have smashed stores. It is a mess," said resident Benjamin Ngouan.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged "calm and restraint by all concerned so that tensions do not escalate," his deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said at UN headquarters in New York.

The United States urged Gabonese authorities and citizens "to respond to the results peacefully," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said.

After several delays, the electoral commission finally announced on Thursday that Ali Bongo, a former defence minister, had won the presidency, succeeding his father who ruled for 41 years until his death in June.

Ali Bongo was declared the winner with 42 percent of votes cast in Sunday’s election, putting him clearly ahead of his nearest rival Andre Mba Obame, a former interior minister, who won 26 percent of votes.

Main opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou came third with 25 percent.

All three had proclaimed victory soon after polls closed and the build-up to Thursday’s announcement had been marked by growing tensions.

"This is an electoral coup d’etat. I do not recognise the election results. It’s me who won," Mba Obame told AFP from a secret location

Security forces tear-gassed and baton charged demonstrators, including Mba Obame and Mamboundou outside the electoral commission building before the results were announced, witnesses and their supporters said.

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However Interior Minister Jean-Francois Ndongou later told diplomats gathered at a Libreville hotel that "no soldier or policeman hit or fired on a political leader. No political leader has been arrested, they are all free."

Injured in the face by a rubber bullet, Paul-Marie Gondjout, head of the Gabonese Union for Democracy and Development, told AFP that the soldiers acted "without warning and without reason."

After the results were announced Ali Bongo pledged to unite the country.

"As far as I am concerned, I am and I will always be the president of all the people of Gabon… I am and I will always be at the service of all, without exclusion," he said at his campaign headquarters in Libreville.

African Union observers on Tuesday said that while the election met legal provisions, "ballot boxes were not sealed in some places" and some polling station staff apparently did not "master the voting process."

Home to 1.5 million people, Gabon is strategically important as the fourth largest oil producer in sub-Saharan African. It is also a major exporter of manganese and wood.

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