Armed clashes erupted in Sierra Leone’s capital on Sunday after what the government said was an attack on a military armoury, as it imposed an immediate nationwide curfew.
Witnesses said they had heard gunshots and explosions in the Wilberforce district of Freetown, where the armoury and a number of embassies are located.
Other witnesses reported exchanges of fire near a barracks in Murray Town district, home to the navy, and outside another military site in the capital.
Video posted on social networks suggested numerous prisoners had escaped from the central jail. One man who was in a group filmed on the street by an AFP correspondent said they had escaped from the prison.
The authorities said calm had been restored but made no further comments about the attackers’ motives.
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) issued a statement underlining “its zero tolerance for unconstitutional change of government”.
Echoing language used to condemn past coup attempts, Ecowas spoke of its “utter disgust” over a “plot by certain individuals to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order in Sierra Leone”.
Witness Susan Kargbo said by telephone that she been woken “by a loud sound of heavy machine gun and bombs coming from the Wilberforce barracks around 4.30am.
“I was shocked and … the gunshots continued until this morning. It was like a war,” she said.
The government said those attempting to break into the armoury at a major army barracks had been repelled, but asked people to stay at home.
“The public is assured that the government and our state security forces are in control,” the country’s information minister, Chernor Bah, said. “To enable the security forces to continue the process of apprehending the suspects, a nationwide curfew is declared with immediate effect across the country.”
Sierra Leone, an English-speaking country in west Africa, has been going through a political crisis since presidential and general elections in June.
The country’s president, Julius Maada Bio, also gave assurances that calm had returned to the capital.
“In the early hours of this morning, there was a breach of security at the military barracks at Wilberforce in Freetown, as some unidentified individuals attacked the military armoury,” he posted on X.
“However, they were repelled by our gallant security forces and calm has been restored.
“As the combined team of our security forces continue to route out [sic] the remnant of the fleeing renegades, a nationwide curfew has been declared and citizens are encouraged to stay indoors.”
Bio said the government would “continue to protect the peace and security of Sierra Leone against the forces that wish to truncate our much-cherished stability” and was “resolute in our determination to protect democracy in Sierra Leone”.
The US embassy condemned the attempt to break into the armoury on social media and offered continued support for those “working for a peaceful, democratic, healthy and prosperous Sierra Leone”.
Bio, who was first elected in 2018, was re-elected in June with just over 56% of the vote, narrowly avoiding a run-off vote.
International observers condemned inconsistencies and a lack of transparency in the count, as well as acts of violence and intimidation.
The main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party disputed the results of the 24 June presidential, legislative and local elections and boycotted all levels of government.
The APC and the government signed an agreement in October after talks mediated by the Commonwealth, the African Union and Ecowas.
The APC agreed to end its boycott and begin participating in government in exchange for an end to detentions and court cases it said were politically motivated.