Congo: Protest, tear gas, as Sassou Nguesso seeks to extend rule
Police fired tear gas at opposition supporters in Congo Republic on Sunday, witnesses said, after voting ended in a poll expected to see long-time leader Denis Sassou Nguesso extend his three-decade rule.
The government ordered mobile phone and internet services cut for the day across the oil-producing Central African country "for reasons of security and public tranquillity", a government official said. It also banned motor vehicle use nationwide.
Despite protests in which at least 18 demonstrators died, Sassou Nguesso pushed through constitutional changes in October to remove term and age limits that would have prevented him from standing again. He is now heavily favoured to win the polls.
He faces eight opponents, including retired General Jean-Marie Mokoko, seen as the strongest challenger.
"I want this to go well. I don't want war, which is often what happens after these elections," said Damien Kiongazi, who returned home to the capital Brazzaville from Paris to vote.
However, soon after polling stations closed, security forces moved in on crowds that had gathered in the capital's Bacongo neighbourhood, an opposition stronghold.
Witnesses who said they had been following the vote counting were then teargassed by riot police. A heavy odour of the gas still hung in the air when a Reuters reporter arrived in the neighbourhood
Sassou Nguesso, who ruled from 1979 until he lost an election in 1992, regained power in 1997 after a brief civil war and then went on to win disputed polls in 2002 and 2009.
His supporters credit him with restoring stability and developing the country's infrastructure.
"I think the vote marks progress for our democracy. And I can say that the new republic is setting out under a good omen," Sassou Nguesso said after voting in Brazzaville.
The president's critics claim Congo's oil wealth has enriched and entrenched a small elite, while around half of the population of 4.5 million lives in poverty.