A burned police station in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on April 4. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
PARIS — President Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s new term in office, a continuation of his decades in power after a murky re-election, has gotten off to a rocky start since violence in the Republic of Congo has left his political opponents fearing for their lives.
On April 4, the day that final election results were released, shooting broke out in the southern districts of the capital, Brazzaville, which are considered to be opposition strongholds. Military barracks and checkpoints and two police stations were targeted in a gun battle that lasted nearly two days, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.
Human right groups have also reported that airstrikes and a ground offensive took place in Pool, another area known for harboring opposition figures, starting the next day.
The violence comes after protests last year over the constitutional referendum that extended the eligibility of presidential candidates beyond age 70, which allowed Mr. Sassou-Nguesso, 72, to run again. Mr. Sassou-Nguesso, often considered one of Africa’s so-called presidents for life, has governed the country for 32 of the last 37 years.
He was re-elected in March after winning more than 60 percent of the vote. Opposition candidates denounced the victory as a sham. In the days around the vote, internet and television networks were shut down in the capital as a security measure, the government said.
The French Ministry of Foreign affairs still does not recognize the election results in its former colony, citing a lack of transparency surrounding the election. Other countries, like Canada and the United States, have also expressed dismay. After sharp criticism from the European Union over the credibility of the results, Brazzaville asked the European Union to recall its ambassador.
Mr. Sassou-Nguesso first came to power in 1979 and governed for 13 years before losing an election in 1992. In 1997, he again assumed power after a civil war killed 10,000 people and displaced thousands more. He enjoys little popularity outside of the northern districts of Brazzaville and the remote northern region where he grew up. He was sworn into his new five-year term in April.
The federal government has blamed a group called the “Ninjas,” former militiamen active during a civil war in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, for the violence after the election. In particular, officials have blamed the former Ninja leader Frédéric Bintsamou, known as Pastor Ntumi, which means “the messenger” in Lari, a local language. In April, the government issued an arrest warrant for him in connection with the recent unrest. He denies any direct involvement in the shootout or violence in the Pool region.
Some of Mr. Sassou-Nguesso’s political opponents who contested the election results, including Gen. Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, who also ran for president in March, have been arrested or put under house arrest after the outbreak of violence in Brazzaville. Mr. Mokoko’s house has been surrounded by government armed forces since April 5, preventing him from going outside. Other members of opponents’ campaign teams have been arrested on the grounds of “endangering the security of the state,” according to the International Federation for Human Rights.
Various witnesses report that the day after the shooting began in Brazzaville, the government bombed the southern Pool region, destroying one of Mr. Bintsamou’s former houses. The government denies targeting civilians and has not issued an official body count. Access to the most sensitive areas of the Pool region has also been denied to local journalists and nongovernmental groups.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo in Tunis, Tunisia, last year. Credit Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images
The bombings affected residential areas and damaged public and private properties, including one primary school, said Ilaria Allegrozzi, a researcher with Amnesty International.
“Because it occurred early morning, it is unlikely that children were struck, but we have no confirmation of this,” she said.
Shelling with heavy weapons and bombardments in Pool stopped in mid-April, but ground offensives are still taking place in various villages in the region, humanitarian groups have reported. One woman who fled to Brazzaville told Amnesty International in April that she saw at least 30 bodies in one area and described heavy damage in the Pool region caused by airstrikes. However, the organization stressed that because they were denied access to the areas in question, cross-checking witness reports remained impossible.
In April, the Congolese branch of the international aid organization Caritas Internationalis said more than 2,000 people had fled the Pool region and gone into the bush. Ghys Fortuné Bemba Dombe, a local journalist whose newspaper was shut down by the government, said many people were still in hiding, afraid to return to their villages.
The United Nations said in an April news release that there had been “reports of mass arrests and torture in detention” in Pool.
In May, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon urged Mr. Sassou-Nguesso to “ensure that humanitarian and other relevant actors are granted access to the affected areas.”
The authorities have denied hitting any residential areas. The minister of communication, Thierry Moungalla, has been quoted as saying that the government had ordered “targeted” and “proportionate” strikes on the “command centers” of the former Ninja leader, Mr. Bintsamou, located in remote and sparsely populated areas of the Pool region.
Groups like Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights have been denied access to the Pool region. “There is no official reason for this, but authorities claim this is due to insecurity there” said Tresor Nzila, the director of the Congolese branch of the the International Federation for Human Rights.
Speaking after the release of an Amnesty report, the minister of communication, Mr. Moungalla, told reporters that access to the Pool region had been denied to organizations whose aim is to “criticize national authorities and conduct biased and one-sided investigations.”
In Brazzaville, witnesses say the arrests of opposition members have continued and residents are being plucked from the streets and detained.
“There is a climate of generalized psychosis,” said Mr. Dombe, the journalist.
MARGAUX BENN reported from Paris and CAROLINE CHAUVET from New Delhi