, CONGO, Oct 23 – Congo’s opposition has said it will obey a ban on public demonstrations after deadly street violence, cancelling a Friday protest against a referendum that could allow the president to extend his three decades in office.
The country has been rocked by protests ahead of the planned referendum on Sunday to amend the constitution to allow long-ruling President Denis Sassou Nguesso to run for another term in 2016.
“We decided to cancel our meeting tomorrow because the Brazzaville prefecture told us that all gatherings were banned on Friday in the public square,” opposition leader Mpouele Paul-Marie told AFP Thursday.
Authorities said at least four people had been killed in unrest after clashes Tuesday between demonstrators and security forces in Brazzaville and the country’s economic capital Pointe-Noire.
But Mpouele said at least 20 people had died in the unrest.
The referendum proposes changing the constitution to increase the maximum age of presidential candidates, currently 70, and scrapping a rule that limits the number of seven-year terms to two.
Sassou Nguesso, 71, cannot run for a new term because of his age and the fact he has already served two seven-year terms.
“We ask our supporters to remain vigilant, to be ready for new instructions, and to reject the referendum,” said Mpouele, calling on everyone to “avoid all violent acts”.
On Wednesday the opposition said six of its officials had been arrested in Brazzaville as they prepared to give a news conference.
All six were members of the Republican Front for the Respect of Constitutional Order and Democratic Change (FROCAD), one of the two groups opposing the referendum.
For the third day running Thursday, mobile Internet, text messaging services and French radio RFI’s signal were cut throughout the capital.
– ‘Sassoufit’ –
Sassou Nguesso has ruled the small central African country for more than 30 years, first serving as president from 1979 to 1992.
The former Marxist soldier then served as opposition leader and returned to power at the end of a brief but bloody civil war in 1997 in which his rebel forces ousted president Pascal Lissouba.
He was elected president in 2002, then again in 2009, when he won nearly 79 percent of the votes. Half of his 12 rivals boycotted the election.
The European Union said Thursday that “Freedom of expression and association should be preserved” and that “an inclusive dialogue was the only way to restore a broad consensus” in the country.
Commenting on the situation in Congo, French President Francois Hollande Wednesday urged Sassou to “calm tensions”.
“Denis Sassou Nguesso can consult his people, it is his right and the people must respond,” he told a press conference in Paris.
Tens of thousands of the president’s supporters staged a rally on Saturday in favour of the constitutional changes.
The turnout dwarfed the size of an anti-government demonstration late last month, when several thousand people poured onto the capital’s streets to protest against the president’s plan to cling to power.
They had rallied under the cry “Sassoufit”, a pun on the French expression which means “that’s enough”.