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Violence breaks out in Gabon after controversial presidential vote

Marco Longari, AFP | The flash of an explosion is pictured amid flames and smoke billowing from Gabon’s National Assembly building in the capital Libreville after it was set ablaze on August 31, 2016

Incumbent Ali Ben Bongo was declared the winner in Gabon’s presidential poll Wednesday triggering violent protests, with angry crowds torching the parliament. Opposition candidate Jean Ping told FRANCE 24 that two died in the violence.

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Bongo secured a razor-thin victory against his main challenger Jean Ping, securing 49.8 percent of the vote with Ping gaining 48.2 percent, according to the final results announced by Gabonese Interior Minister Pacome Moubelet-Boubeya.

The opposition promptly rejected the results, calling them fraudulent.

After the results announcement, demonstrators flooded the streets of the capital, Libreville, throwing projectiles and burning tyres at security forces, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

“Ping heho, Ali must go!” shouted the demonstrators, most of them young men from the mapanes, or slums, of the capital city.

As gunfire crackled across the city, at least six people were admitted to hospital with bullet wounds, AFP reporters saw. Several of the wounded said they were shot by security forces.

By evening, protesters had set fire to the National Assembly building. Photographs showed dark smoke rising from the building with fires burning different sections of the premises.

Fires were visible in other parts of the capital and explosions could be heard.

Gabonese security forces later stormed the opposition’s headquarters, according to Ping, who told FRANCE 24 that at least two people had been killed in the assault.

“At around 1am, my headquarters were bombarded by helicopters and targeted on the ground by troops from the presidential guard, police and mercenaries,” Ping said. “We’ve got two dead and several wounded.”

A government spokesman said security forces had stormed the opposition headquarters to catch the "criminals" responsible for setting fire to the parliament building in the capital.

"Armed people who set fire to the parliament had gathered at Jean Ping's headquarters along with hundreds of looters and thugs... they were not political protesters but criminals," said Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze.

Controversy at electorial commission?

Wednesday’s delayed final result announcement by the interior minister came hours after the country’s election commission (Cenap) met to review the results of the presidential poll with several commission members confirming to FRANCE 24 independently that they had approved the final vote tally.

Cenap members voted by secret ballot to approve a vote count from the Saturday poll that was disputed by delegates from the Ping camp.

"The opposition abstained," a delegate from Ping’s camp told the AFP ahead of the official announcement.

Bongo, 57, was running for a second term as head of the oil-rich state previously ruled for 41 years by his father, Omar.

Ping, a 73-year-old career diplomat well-known on the international scene, worked with Bongo senior for many years.

France, US urge restraint

France – the former colonial power in Gabon – called for the publication of results from all the country’s polling stations.

"The conditions of the announcement of results of the presidential election in Gabon are a concern,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in a statement. “France reiterates its concern for transparency. We consider it necessary that the results of all the polling stations are published."

The US also urged restraint, with State Department spokesman John Kirby noting that, “The United States is deeply concerned regarding unfolding events in Gabon. We take note of the results released by the electoral commission and urge all sides to temper their rhetoric and encourage their supporters to remain calm."

Tensions have been rising in the West African nation amid fears of a repeat of the violence that followed Gabon’s disputed 2009 election.

>> Read more on France24.com: “Video: Fears of post-election violence in Gabon”

Soldiers and police were deployed in the capital of Libreville Monday after Ping declared himself the winner in a Twitter post and called on Bongo to “abide by the verdict of the polls and to recognise his defeat".

Bongo’s 2009 election followed the death of his father, whose 41 years in the presidency was marred by major corruption allegations and a clampdown on any opposition via an effective mix of violence and patronage.

When he took over the presidency from his late father, Bongo attempted to change the system of kleptocracy and moved to diversify the economy. But Gabon's economic troubles, caused by falling oil output and prices, have fuelled opposition support among the country’s 1.7 million people.

All eyes on Bongo's stronghold

Any appeal by Ping would likely focus on disputed results in one of the country's nine provinces – the Haut-Ogooue, the heartland of Bongo's Teke ethnic group.

Bongo won 95.46 percent of the vote in his stronghold, according to the official results. While the national voter turnout was 59.46 percent, the turnout in Haut-Ogooue was 99.93 percent.

"It's going to be difficult to get people to accept these results," one member of the electoral commission confided to AFP, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"We've never seen results like these, even during the father's time," he added.

Gabon’s first-past-the-post system means the winner only needs more votes than any other candidate. Bongo, 57, also benefits from being the incumbent in a country with a patronage system lubricated by oil largesse.

The European Union’s observer mission on Monday criticised a “lack of transparency” among the institutions running the polls and said Bongo had benefited from preferential access to money and the media. Government spokesman Alain-Claude Nze accused the EU of overstepping its mandate.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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