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Shots fired as post-election violence grips Benin

Yannick Folly, AFP | Tyres burn as protesters barricade the streets of Cadjehoun, the stronghold of former president Thomas Yayi Boni, in Cotonou on May 2, 2019.

Soldiers in Benin firing automatic rifles deployed in force against hundreds of protestors demonstrating against controversial parliamentary polls, with casualties reported in the violence, witnesses said Thursday.

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"They fired bursts of bullets," said one witness, a close relative of former president Thomas Boni Yayi, who had led calls for a boycott of the ballot and whose house has become a focal point of protests.

The witness claimed that three people were killed, and that other protesters had fled. There was no official confirmation of the toll.

A video seen by AFP showed soldiers firing automatic rifles.

"The situation has worsened in the area where the former president lives," said FRANCE 24’s Emmanuelle Sodji. “The army stormed the street where his house is located around 2pm local time. I'm next door, I heard a lot of gunfire. The military has been scouring the entire neighborhood. Every street is being inspected.

"I don't hear any more shots right now but just before the assault there was renewed tension among Boni Yayi's supporters. A car was set on fire. The situation is very confusing. There are probably people injured because people are lying down. Three people were reportedly killed but it is impossible to say more. For the moment the situation is really very tense here.”

Hundreds of protesters have manned burning barricades, defying security forces, as violence broke out following the controversial polls held without a single opposition candidate.

Protesters have torched businesses, hurled stones, and smashed the windows of government buildings, chanting slogans against President Patrice Talon.

A woman died on Thursday after being wounded the day before, medical sources said, and a man was brought to the hospital with a gunshot wound in his back.

"Nobody has slept," said one demonstrator on Thursday morning, who gave his name as Justin B.

"Around 10pm, they cut the light and fired live ammunition," he claimed, pointing to two empty bullet casings and bloodstains on the ground.

In the Cadjehoun district of Cotonou, where Boni Yayi's house is, a resident also reported to have heard shots fired.

"We do not know at all what will happen now, but we feel that it is bad," said one woman, but added that it still felt safe enough for children to go to school on Thursday.

Interior Minister Sacca Lafia said security forces had been ordered onto the streets to stop protests, but called reports they were trying to arrest Boni Yayi "fake news".

Factory burned

Violence was also reported in the town of Kandi, some 620 kilometres (385 miles) to the north, where one of the country's largest cotton factories -- a sector in which President Talon made his fortune before embarking on politics -- was set on fire.

"Protesters set the factory on fire in the evening, we still have no idea of the damage but they are huge, everything burned," said a firefighter.

The small West African state was held up as a model for democracy, but the situation has raised warnings from civil society and rights groups inside and outside Benin.

Tough new eligibility criteria effectively barred opposition parties from fielding any candidates in last Sunday's parliamentary elections.

On the day itself, more than three-quarters of the country's five million registered voters stayed at home.

Just 22.99 percent of registered voters cast the ballots, according to preliminary results.

Turnout had previously never dropped below 50 percent since the country's transition to democracy in 1990.

Following the vote, Boni Yayi and Nicephore Soglo, president from 1991-1996, spoke out against the election.

"The people demand the return of democracy," Boni Yayi told reporters on Monday, calling on people to resist the current president. "Talon will walk over our dead bodies."

The situation has raised warnings from civil society and rights groups inside and outside Benin.

Amnesty International, speaking before voting, said that a "wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests" had reached an "alarming level".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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