COTONOU: Soldiers in Benin fired shots Thursday as they clamped down on the second day of angry demonstrations against parliamentary polls held without a single opposition candidate, witnesses said.
Large numbers of troops and riot police — as well as hundreds of protesters manning burning barricades — squared off in the streets of Benin’s economic capital Cotonou.
A witness said three people were killed Thursday as soldiers opened fire, and a video seen by AFP showed troops firing as protesters fled.
“The police and soldiers… they started firing, they chased people,” said a resident. “We heard shots, lots of shots.”
A woman died on Thursday after being wounded the day before, medical sources said, and a man was brought to hospital with a gunshot wound to the back.
The protests began hours after initial results Wednesday showed a record low turnout in Sunday’s election.
On Thursday, soldiers deployed in force.
“They made a brutal incursion,” said one witness, a relative of former president Thomas Boni Yayi who had led calls for a boycott of Sunday’s ballot and whose house has become a focal point of protests.
“They fired bursts of bullets,” said the witness, who spoke of three deaths among the protesters.
Interior Minister Sacca Lafia told French radio RFI some officers had “gone against given orders” and those found guilty would receive the “toughest punishment”.
Despite the violence, the Constitutional Court said it would release final election results later Thursday.
– ‘Democracy is precious’-
Protestors chanting slogans against President Patrice Talon have torched businesses, hurled stones and petrol bombs, and smashed the windows of government buildings.
Police fired tear gas to break up crowds, and protestors tried to throw some of the canisters back.
“Talon… will not be able to kill our democracy,” one demonstrator said.
“Democracy is precious to us, the people of Benin,” said another. “That is why we have protested.”
Violence was also reported in the town of Kandi, some 620 kilometres (385 miles) to the north.
One of the country’s largest cotton factories — a sector in which Talon made his fortune before embarking on politics — was set on fire.
“Protesters set the factory on fire,” said a firefighter. “Everything burned.”
– ‘Crackdown’ –
Tough new eligibility criteria effectively barred opposition parties from fielding candidates in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
Opposition leaders asked people not to vote, and the preliminary results showed that over three-quarters of the country’s five million registered voters heeded the call.
Just 22.99 percent of registered voters cast the ballots, according to preliminary results.
Before Sunday, when it was 22.99 percent, turnout had not dipped below 50 percent since the country’s transition to democracy in 1990.
Boni Yayi and Nicephore Soglo, president from 1991-1996, spoke out against the election.
“The people demand the return of democracy,” Boni Yayi told reporters on Monday, calling on people to resist the incumbent president. “Talon will walk over our dead bodies.”
Events in the small West African state has given rise to warnings from civil society and rights groups inside and outside Benin.
Amnesty International, ahead of the vote, said a “wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests” had reached an “alarming level.” —AFP