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Congo protests turn deadly over president's attempt to extend rule

Official suppression of a banned protest has left at least four dead and 10 injured in the capital city. Anger has risen over longtime President Sassou Nguesso's bid to extend his term by seven years.

Police fired live ammunition against demonstrators defying a ban on gatherings in the capital Brazzaville Tuesday as anger grew over

a planned referendum

designed to extend President Nguesso's rule.

Tension in cities had mounted quickly after the president took to the airwaves ordering people to tend to their work "as normal" and that public gatherings were "banned."

But shops remained shuttered and schools and offices were closed across most of the capital as young protesters took to the streets and burned tires.

Interior Minister Raymond Mboulou told state TV the "organized and coordinated insurrection" had led to three deaths in the capital and a fourth in the southern town of Pointe-Noire.

"The symbols of the republic, such as the police headquarters (or) gendarmerie brigades, were targeted," Mboulou said.

Communications disrupted by state

In both Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, the country's economic capital, mobile Internet and text messaging services were unavailable as was the signal for France's Radio France Internationale (RFI), one of the region's most popular sources of news and information.

The source of the crowd's anger is a Sunday referendum that proposes increasing the maximum age of presidential candidates - currently 70 - and scrapping a rule that limits the maximum number of seven-year terms to two. Both measures prevent the 72-year-old president who has ruled since 1997 from seeking a third term. The former Marxist soldier also ruled from 1979 to 1992.

Rights groups and diplomats in the region have appealed for calm. "The United States strongly urges all parties, including both the government and the opposition, to engage in dialogue and to refrain from violent actions that would undermine the hard-won peace that all citizens deserve," a US envoy for human rights, Sarah Sewall, said at a press conference in Kinshasa in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Congo is lurching toward a political crisis that threatens the stability of the country.

Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, a leader of the main opposition PanAfrican Union for Social Democracy, said on Tuesday that the aim of demonstrations was to lead to "a peaceful popular insurrection" to prevent the referendum from going forward.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of the president's supporters staged a rally in favor of the referendum. But the turnout dwarfed the size of last month's anti-government protests when thousands took to the streets, rallying to the slogan "Sassoufit!" a pun on the French expression for "that's enough."

jar/jm (AFP, Reuters)

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