Sierra Leone imposes nationwide curfew amid deadly anti-government protests

FREETOWN, Aug 10 (Reuters) – At least two police officers and a civilian were killed in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown after a day of anti-government protests, staff at the city’s main mortuary said on Wednesday.

Sierra Leone’s government had previously said there had been deaths, but could not say how many, as protesters threw rocks and burned tires on the streets and were frustrated by economic hardship and other problems.

The West African country, grappling with rising inflation and a fuel crisis, imposed a nationwide curfew from 3pm local time (1500 GMT) to prevent violence.

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“As a government, we have a responsibility to protect every citizen of Sierra Leone. What happened today was unfortunate and will be fully investigated,” President Julius Mada Bayo said on Twitter.

In addition to the three bodies at the morgue, a Reuters reporter saw another civilian body on the street in eastern Freetown.

The police chief and spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Videos on social media verified by Reuters showed large crowds of protesters and piles of burnt tires in parts of the capital Freetown. Other footage shows a group of youths throwing stones on a street filled with white smoke.

“People are upset about the country’s justice system which is sick, the prices are increasing every day and there are financial difficulties,” said Daniel Alfa Camara, a university student.

The violence began at 10:30 a.m. local time, he said, when he saw a cloud of tear gas rising outside his dormitory.

“These unscrupulous individuals have launched violent and unauthorized protests that have cost the lives of innocent Sierra Leoneans, including security personnel,” Vice President Mohammed Juldeh Jalloh said in a video address.

“The government hereby declares a nationwide curfew,” he said. “The security sector has been authorized to fully implement this directive.”

The regional political and economic bloc ECOWAS said it condemned the violence and in a Twitter post called for “all to uphold law and order and for perpetrators of violence to be identified and brought to justice”.

Discontent is growing for many reasons, including the lack of government support for struggling ordinary people, said Augustine Sori-Sengbe Marah, a constitutional lawyer and administration activist.

“There has been some sympathy from the central government to encourage people to see that they are suffering and they understand that these are tough economic times,” he told Reuters.

Rising prices for basic goods have also fueled chronic frustration in Sierra Leone, where more than half of the population of about 8 million live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

Earlier on Wednesday, internet observatory NetBlocks said Sierra Leone faced a near-total internet blackout during the protests, with national connectivity at 5% of normal levels.

On Tuesday, the National Security Coordinator asked the armed forces to be ready to back up the police from August 9-12, warning of a “potentially volatile security situation,” according to an internal letter widely shared online.

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Reporting by Cooper Inwin and Umaru Fofana; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Anait Miridzanian; Editing by Mike Harrison and Alastair Bell

Our Standards: Principles of Thomson Reuters Trust.

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