Saturday 23 February 2019

Attempted coup to 'restore democracy' crushed in Gabon

President Ali Bongo: Came to power following death of his father. Photo: AFP/Getty
President Ali Bongo: Came to power following death of his father. Photo: AFP/Getty

Max Bearak

Soldiers in the oil-rich central African country of Gabon seized control of the national broadcaster yesterday and issued a statement claiming they had deposed the country's absent leader to "restore democracy".

Four hours later, a spokesman for Gabon's government called the soldiers "mutineers" and "jokers" and said four out of five of them have been arrested.

Reports said the coup attempt was accompanied by scattered gunfire in the capital, Libreville, and videos on social media showed armoured vehicles speeding through the streets, while helicopters circled overhead.

After suffering from an apparent stroke in October, Gabon President Ali Bongo travelled for treatment to Saudi Arabia and then to Morocco, where he has been recovering.

In his first public statement since falling ill, he issued a New Year's address from the Moroccan capital Rabat acknowledging he had been "through a difficult period" and promised to return soon.

The leaders of the attempted coup read out a statement on state radio in the pre-dawn hours, denouncing Mr Bongo. Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, the leader of the self-declared Patriotic Movement of the Youth of the Defence and Security Forces of Gabon, said Mr Bongo's address had "reinforced doubts about the president's ability to continue to carry out of the responsibilities of his office".

"If you are eating, stop; if you are having a drink, stop; if you are sleeping, wake up. Wake up your neighbours - rise up as one and take control of the street," he said over the radio.

By mid-morning, however, it appeared the coup attempt had failed and only one of its orchestrators was at large.

"Calm has returned, the situation is under control," government spokesman Guy- Bertrand Mapangou said, adding the earlier gunfire was to control a crowd.

An official close to the president's office told Radio France International the strategic points in the country were under its control, including the radio, and the army was seeking to resolve the situation without violence.

The internet had reportedly been cut in the capital and many areas were without electricity, but reports from news agencies indicated those services were quickly returning.

In his speech on state radio, Lt Obiang had said the army high command had failed in its mission to defend the country and called on the rank and file soldiers to "take control of all means of transport, army bases and security posts, armories, and airports".

He also called for the formation of a Council of National Restoration and invited members of civil society and opposition parties, as well as a former Republican Guard commander to meet together at the country's parliament.

Gabon lies on Africa's Atlantic coast. It was formerly ruled by France, which maintains a military presence there.

Last week, the United States deployed 80 troops to Gabon to evacuate American citizens from nearby Congo in the event that a disputed election there turns violent.

Mr Bongo came to power in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar, who ruled the country for 42 years. His narrow re-election in 2016 was marred by violence and accusations of fraud.

His half brother, Frederic, leads Gabon's intelligence service and is closely aligned with the military.

Irish Independent

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