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12.02.2005 Togo

Three demonstrators killed in Togo

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LOME, (IRIN) - At least three people were killed in Togo at the weekend when troops fired into groups of opposition demonstrators protesting at Faure Gnassingbe's military-backed seizure of power following the death in office of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema.

The street protests took place on Saturday as Prime Minister Koffi Sama flew to Niamey for talks with Mamadou Tandja, the President of Niger on demands by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

He led a delegation that was summoned to hear Tandja, the current chairman of ECOWAS, outline demands that Togo apply the constitution as it stood before Eyadema died suddenly after 38 years in power on 5 February.

Before itwas retroactively changed following Gnassingbe's seizure of power, the constitution called for Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, the President of the National Assembly at the time of Eyadema's death, to become interim head of state and for presidential elections to be held in within 60 days.

The Togolese delegation made no comment as it flew home on Saturday night following seven hours of talks with Tandja.

But Niger's Foreign Minister, Aichatou Mindaoudou told reporters: “ We are pretty certain that they have got the message. They were mandated to come and receive this message from the ECOWAS chairman. They will return to Lome to pass it on to Faure Gnassingbe and in the coming days they will give an appropriate response.”

ECOWAS has condemned Gnassingbe's assumption of power as a military coup d'etat. A mission comprising five ECOWAS heads of state and Alpha Oumar Konare, the President of the Commission of the African Union (AU), was due to hold talks with Gnassingbe in Togo on Friday.

However, they aborted their mission at a preliminary meeting in Cotonou, the capital of neighbouring Benin, after Gnassingbe insisted on meeting them in the northern town of Kara, the birthplace of his father and a stronghold of his Kabiye ethnic group, instead of the capital Lome.

At the same time, the ECOWAS leaders demanded that the Togolese leadership send a delegation to hold talks with Tandja in Niamey on Saturday or face the imposition of immediate ECOWAS sanctions.

Togo, a former French colony of five million people, is surrounded by other member states of the 15-nation organisation which promotes regional integration. Its immediate neighbours are Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso.

The Niger foreign minister said President Tandja had “insisted on the necessity of the Togolese authorities conforming with the decisions taken by ECOWAS so as not to find themselves isolated.”

“We got the impression that the Togolese authorities are very worried by the decisions taken by ECOWAS and are anxious to conform to them,” she added.

Shortly before the talks got under way in Niger, several thousand opposition supporters and angry youths tried to stage a demonstration against Gnassingbe in Lome.

This had been called by Togo's six main opposition parties in defiance of a two-month ban on public demonstrations imposed by the authorities.

Soldiers and police, backed by pickup tracks mounted with machine guns, prevented the march from getting under way in the suburb of Be, which has traditionally been a stronghold of the opposition.

However, running battles developed between the security forces and groups of several hundred protestors which formed at key crossroads.

Many of these groups set tyres on fire in the street and attempted to set up barricades with wrecked cars.

Eyewitnesses said the protestors threw stones at the soldiers and police who mostly replied with tear gas and baton charges.

However, in several instances, the army fired live rounds into the crowds of protestors as well as warning shots above their heads, they added.

The government said later in a communiqué that three people had been killed in the disturbances, which petered out in mid-afternoon.

However, eyewitnesses told IRIN they had seen four people shot dead by the army and several others injured by baton charges.

Lome, a seaside city of 800,000 people, remained calm on Sunday, but the opposition parties called a fresh general strike for Monday. They urged people to stay at home so as to make Togo “a dead country.”

Attempts by the opposition to stage an identical two-day strike on 8 and 9 February met with only partial success. Business activity in Lome slowed markedly on the first day of the stoppage, but support for it crumbled on day two.

Following this first attempt at a mass protest, the authorities shut down four privately owned radio stations and one independent television station, accusing them of inciting people to rebel against the government.

The seizure of power by Gnassingbe, who was Minister of Public Works, Mines and Telecommunications in his late father's government, has been greeted with near universal condemnation.

Besides ECOWAS and AU, the United Nations, the European Union, France and the United States have demanded that the authorities respect the constitution's provisions for the democratic transition of power to a new elected president.

France had very close links with Eyadema, who was Africa's longest serving head of state until his death at the age of 69. It still maintains a military garrison and an air force base in Lome.

On Saturday, the AU's Peace and Security Commission protested at the harsh suppression of dissent by son's regime.

The president of the commission said in a statement that he “noted with concern the rapid deterioration of the situation in Togo and deplored the recent moves to limit the freedom of information, as illustrated by the intimidation of journalists and the closure or blocking of independent radio stations.”

A spokesman for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who comes from neighbouring Ghana, meanwhile called on the Togolese authorities “to exercise maximum restraint while efforts continue to find an early and peaceful solution to the country's current crisis.”

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