© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Sierra Leone’s President and ruling party candidate Julius Maada Bio speaks to journalists after casting his vote for national elections at a polling station in Freetown, Sierra Leone, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Cooper Inveen/File Photo
By Umaru Fofana
FREETOWN (Reuters) -Gunfire could be heard in some neighbourhoods of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown on Sunday afternoon following an attempt by unidentified gunmen to break into a military armoury.
The government declared a nationwide curfew after assailants attacked the armoury at the Wilberforce barracks in the early hours of Sunday. The assailants were rebuffed by the country’s security forces, it said in a statement.
“The public is assured that the government and our state security forces are in control,” information minister Chernor Bah said in the statement.
“To enable the security forces to continue the process of apprehending the suspects, a nationwide curfew has been declared with immediate effect across the country. We strongly advise citizens to stay indoors,” the statement added.
The political situation in Sierra Leone has been tense since President Julius Maada Bio was re-elected in June, a result rejected by the main opposition candidate.
Sustained gunfire could still be heard in some neighbourhoods of Freetown as residents hunkered down in their homes around 1200 GMT on Sunday, Reuters reporters said.
Sierra Leone’s interior minister David Taluva told Reuters that the retreating assailants had attacked a police barracks after running out of ammunition, and had seized more arms from police officers.
The streets of the capital were mostly empty near the barracks earlier on Sunday morning, said a Reuters reporter who encountered a group of the renegade soldiers.
“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.
A senior government official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters that assailants also attacked the central prison in Freetown and some inmates had escaped. The prison, designed to hold 324 inmates, contained over 2,000 in 2019, according to a U.S. State Department report.
It was not immediately clear how many had broken out of the facility, but videos shared on social media showed several people fleeing from the area of the prison, while gun shots could be heard in the background. Reuters has not authenticated the videos.
The Economic Community of West African States on Sunday condemned what it called an attempt by certain individuals to “acquire arms and disturb constitutional order” in Sierra Leone. The U.S. embassy in Freetown said such actions were not justified.
Bio praised the “gallant security forces” who repelled Sunday’s attack and said calm had been restored.
“We shall continue to protect the peace and security of Sierra Leone against the forces that wish to truncate our much-cherished stability,” Bio said in message posted on the president’s X social media account.
The West African nation is still recovering from a 1991-2002 civil war in which more than 50,000 were killed and hundreds maimed.
At least 21 civilians and six police officers were killed in anti-government protests in August, which Bio said at the time were an attempt to overthrow the government.
There have been eight military coups in West and Central Africa since 2020, delivering repeated blows to democracy in the region.