Sierra Leone enacts curfew as gunmen attack barracks
Sierra Leone’s president has declared a curfew after gunmen attacked the military’s main barracks in the capital Freetown and then overran detention centres including a major prison.
The attack raised fears of a breakdown of order amid a surge of coups in the region.
The detention centres, including the Pademba Road Prisons – holding more than 2000 inmates – were attacked just as security forces fought to restore calm during sustained shootouts at the Wilberforce military barracks, according to Information Minister Chernor Bah.
“The prisons were overrun (and) some prisoners were abducted by the assailants while many others were released,” Bah said.
Security forces managed to “push back” the assailants to the outskirts of the city where fighting continues, he added.
Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio earlier declared a country-wide curfew in response to the attacks.
An Associated Press journalist in the capital said that gunshots were still heard in the city hours after the government assured residents of calm, although it was not clear who was behind the exchange of fire nor if any arrests were made.
“The 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 and on top of the situation.”
The president and the country’s Ministry of Information and Education also both said that the government and security forces are in control of the situation, trying to dismiss fears of a possible escalation of violence in the country whose population of eight million is among the poorest in the world, having some of the lowest scores on the United Nations Human Development Index.
The streets of the capital were mostly empty near the barracks earlier on Sunday morning, according to a Reuters reporter who encountered a group of assailants.
“We’ll clean this society. We know what we are up to. We are not after any ordinary civilians who should go about their normal business,” one of the masked men in military fatigues said before driving away.
No details were immediately given about the gunmen or the reason for the attack, which comes months after Bio was re-elected for a second term in a disputed vote in which the main opposition party accused the electoral commission of rigging the results.
West Africa’s regional economic bloc ECOWAS – of which Sierra Leone is a member – described the incident as a plot “to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order” in the country.
The bloc has in recent months tried to reverse the surge in coups in West and Central Africa, which has recorded eight military takeovers since 2020, the latest in Niger and Gabon this year.
“ECOWAS reiterates its zero tolerance for 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 – which left tens of thousands of people dead and destroyed the country’s economy.
He continues to face criticism because of debilitating economic conditions.
Nearly 60 per cent of Sierra Leone’s population is facing poverty, with the youth unemployment rate being one of the highest in west Africa.
Two months after Bio won the disputed vote, police said they arrested several people, including senior military officers planning to use protests “to undermine peace” in the country.
A protest against the government in August last year resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people, including six police officers.