Gabon opposition leader Jean Ping on Friday declared himself the rightful president and called for a vote recount, days after incumbent Ali Bongo was declared the winner of a weekend election which has sparked deadly violence.
“I am the president,” Ping told a press conference at his home in Libreville late Friday, calling for a recount from every polling station.
In the 48 hours since the results of Saturday’s election were announced huge crowds of angry supporters, some of whom torched the parliament, have taken to the streets.
Bongo’s government launched a fierce crackdown, with security forces arresting around a thousand people.
Two people died early Friday following overnight clashes, bringing to five the number killed in the violence that erupted after Bongo was declared victor of the disputed election on Saturday.
Bongo was declared victorious by a razor-thin margin of just under 6,000 votes, but his main challenger Ping, a veteran diplomat and former top African Union official, insisted the vote was rigged and claimed victory for himself.
“The whole world knows who is president of the republic, it’s me Jean Ping,” he said.
The Gabonese authorities categorically refused any recount, invoking the country’s electoral law which includes no such procedure.
The post-vote violence in this small but oil-rich central African nation has sparked international concern, with top diplomats calling for restraint as rights groups raised the alarm over the use of “excessive force”.
The latest fatalities included Bekam Ella Edzang, 27, who died after being shot in the stomach “by the Republican Guard, who were firing tear gas and live bullets,” a childhood friend called Geraud told AFP.
The second victim was identified as 28-year-old Axel Messa, whose mother told AFP he had been shot outside his home.
“They found my son outside his front door in the street. A black car pulled up. They lowered the window — there were two of them — and they fired twice,” she said.
Across the country, the unrest has paralysed transportation, with bread and other fresh foods in short supply, the situation further aggravated by widespread looting.
“We could hear shots all night. Petrol stations are closed and guarded by troops,” said Nicolas, a carpenter who lives on the outskirts of Libreville.
“There are soldiers on guard outside one of the bakeries so we can get a bit of bread.”
Since Wednesday evening, many towns have been gripped by unrest, notably in the country’s north, close to the border with Cameroon where the situation is “particularly tense”, a security source told AFP.
In Oyem, the main town in the north, a policeman was hospitalised after being shot in the head, he said.
In Port Gentil, the economic capital, some youths could be seen barricading shops to deter further looting, while others blocked roads and threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas canisters.
On Thursday, the interior ministry said up to a thousand people had been detained in the post-vote unrest, with a government spokesman saying the aim was to catch the “criminals” who set fire to the parliament building late on Wednesday.
Among those arrested were 27 opposition and civil society leaders who were being held outside Ping’s headquarters, which was raided by the security forces late on Wednesday.
In a joint letter to the heads of the international community, they said that such a “frontal attack” on the opposition revealed the government’s desire “to cover up the electoral theft it just committed.”
But Bongo’s spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie-by-Nze, who is currently in Paris, told AFP the group had later been informed by a UN official that they could go home, saying the official was acting on the president’s orders.
Contacted by AFP, one of the detainees confirmed they were being allowed to leave.
Nze said the situation had “largely calmed down” across the country, even if it had “not yet returned to normal”.
And he put the number of protester deaths at “between three and five”, saying three members of the security forces had been wounded.
In a special session on Gabon late Thursday, the UN Security Council expressed “deep concern” about the situation, urging all sides to “to refrain from violence or other provocations”.
And Washington has urged all parties to work together to “halt the slide towards further unrest.”
In a statement released Friday, Senegal-based rights group RADDHO called on the African Union to try and end the violence and stop Gabon from “sinking into total chaos”.