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Sierra Leone under curfew after gunmen attack barracks and detention centers in capital

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Sierra Leone’s president declared a nationwide curfew Sunday after gunmen attacked the main and largest military barracks in the West African country’s capital , then invaded detention centers, including a large prison.

The attack raised fears of a breakdown in order amid a wave of coups in the region. In recent years, a series of countries in West and Central Africa have experienced military coups. This year alone, the governments of Niger and Gabon were overthrown by military factions, and attempts were made in Burkina Faso and Sudan, the latter of which degenerated into civil war.

WATCH: Why West African countries are seeing a wave of military coups

Detention centers including Pademba Road prisons – housing more than 2,000 inmates – came under attack just as security forces struggled to restore calm during sustained gun battles at Wilberforce military barracks, minister says of Information Chernor Bah.

“The prisons were overrun (and) some prisoners were kidnapped by the attackers while many others were released,” Bah said. Security forces managed to “push back” the attackers towards the outskirts of the city where fighting continues, he added.

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio declared a nationwide curfew in response to the attacks.

An Associated Press reporter in the capital said gunshots were still being heard in the city hours after the government assured residents of calm, although it was not clear who was behind the exchange shootings, nor if any arrests had been made.

“Security forces are making progress in the operation to defeat and apprehend those responsible for today’s attacks,” Bah said. “The government remains in control of the situation. »

The president and the Ministry of Information and Education also said the government and security forces were controlling the situation, trying to head off fears of a possible escalation of violence in a country with a population of 8 million inhabitants are among the poorest in the country. the world, with some of the lowest scores on the United Nations Human Development Index.

No details were immediately given about the gunmen or the reason for the attack, which comes months after Bio was re-elected to a second term in a contested vote in which the main party opposition accused the electoral commission of rigging the results.

Videos posted online showed soldiers patrolling the empty streets of Freetown and captured the loud bangs of gunfire at dawn. The AP could not immediately verify the authenticity of the videos.

West Africa’s regional economic bloc ECOWAS – of which Sierra Leone is a member – described the incident as a plot “aimed at acquiring weapons and disrupting peace and constitutional order” in the country. . The bloc has tried in recent months to reverse the wave of coups in West and Central Africa, which has seen eight military takeovers since 2020, the latest in Niger and Gabon this year.

“ECOWAS reiterates its zero tolerance towards an unconstitutional change of government,” the bloc said in a statement.

Bio was re-elected in Sierra Leone’s fifth presidential election since the end of a brutal 11-year civil war – more than two decades ago – that left tens of thousands dead and destroyed the country’s economy .

It continues to face criticism due to debilitating economic conditions. Nearly 60 percent of Sierra Leone’s population faces poverty, with youth unemployment rates among the highest in West Africa.

Two months after Bio won the disputed vote, police said they had arrested several people, including senior army officers who planned to use the protests “to undermine peace” in the country.

An anti-government protest in August last year resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people, including six police officers.

Chinedu Asadu reported from Abuja, Nigeria.

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