, BRAZZAVILLE, Oct 25 – Congo is holding a referendum Sunday to determine whether longtime President Denis Sassou Nguesso can seek a third term in office following deadly clashes in the oil-producing country.
The opposition called off protests on Friday, the last day of campaigning before the plebiscite, and the archbishop of the capital Brazzaville, Anatole Nilandou, appealed for talks on the crisis sparked by Sassou Nguesso’s bid to extend his rule.
On Tuesday, authorities said four people were killed in clashes between opposition demonstrators and security forces in Brazzaville and the economic capital Pointe-Noire.
But opposition leader Paul-Marie Mpouele claimed Friday that at least 20 people had died in the unrest and asked opposition supporters “to reject the referendum” but also to “avoid all violent acts”.
Also on Friday, security forces sealed off access to the home of another opposition leader Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, an AFP correspondent said.
Sassou Nguesso, 71, wants to amend the constitution in order to change two provisions that disqualify him for running for re-election in 2016.
Under the current charter, the maximum age of presidential candidates is 70 and the maximum number of mandates a person can serve is two.
Sassou Nguesso, who has led the small central African country in different capacities for more than 30 years since the 1970s, has already served two consecutive seven-year terms.
The former Marxist soldier was president from 1979 to 1992, when Congo was a one-party state. He went into opposition in 1992 after losing multi-party elections but 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 most recent election.
The European Union stressed 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.
The president of former colonial power France, Francois Hollande, on Wednesday urged Sassou Nguesso to “calm tensions” while emphasising his right to “consult his people”.
Tens of thousands of the president’s supporters rallied in Brazzaville on October 10 in favour of the constitutional changes.
The turnout dwarfed 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 rallied under the cry “Sassoufit”, a pun on the French expression “ca suffit”, or “that’s enough”.