27.04.2005 Togo

TOGO -Poll chaos spreads, hundreds flee ....

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... opposition leader declares himself president LOME, 27 April (IRIN) - Hundreds of people fled Togo in fear of their lives on Wednesday as deadly street battles between opposition protesters and security forces raged for a second straight day after the son of the late long-ruling ruler was declared winner of a disputed election.

Plumes of smoke from burning barricades wafted over the capital Lome while fearful residents headed for far-flung home villages or the nearby borders of Benin and Ghana, hauling bags and boxes with them.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said 1,200 people had already crossed the borders of the tiny country, either after coming under attack from the security forces or simply scared about the country sliding into chaos.

Hospital sources told IRIN that at least six people had died in Lome on Tuesday. The opposition said they had seen at least 12 dead bodies by Wednesday, and believed there might be as many as 50 corpses in the capital's hospitals.

The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) told IRIN that its drivers had ferried at least 100 injured to hospitals in Lome alone on Tuesday.

As furious youths continued to fight government forces from behind barricades built of burning cars and hacked down trees, the opposition candidate in Sunday's election, Emmanuel Bob-Akitani, refused to concede defeat despite the announcement of the official results and instead declared himself president.

"Togolese, your president is speaking to you," he was quoted as saying by Reuters. "Yes, your president. We have not lost this presidential election."

"We must fight with our lives if necessary . to force the one who believes he has a divine right over our people to listen to reason," he said, speaking from a safe house inside a neighbourhood of Lome.

Chaos spreading like wildfire

Bob-Akitani was declared runner-up in the elections to Faure Gnassingbe, the son of Gnassingbe Eyadema who ruled this West African nation for 38 years, but there were widespread allegations of seized ballot boxes and other electoral fraud,

Opposition supporters who had been eagerly waiting to turn the page on four decades of the Eyadema family's rule, poured onto the streets within minutes of the results being announced to protest the father-son transition.

It was impossible to know if Bob-Akitani's call for resistance had reached the country's five million people as most private local radios had been taken off the air along with international broadcaster Radio France Internationale, and the mobile phone network was down.

It was also difficult to establish a definite casualty toll in the two days of violence that have raged across the capital and hit other parts of the country.

"No one will ever know how many people have died," said one Western diplomat in Lome. "But the chaos is spreading like wildfire and the international community must act."

In the coastal city of Aneho, some 45 km east of Lome, residents reached by telephone said seven people had been killed and 50 hurt in fierce street warfare on Tuesday, when opposition protesters torched homes belonging to supporters of Gnassingbe's ruling Rally for the Togolese People (RPT).

But on Wednesday residents said most people had gone into hiding after paratroopers stormed in, firing warning shots into the air and lobbing tear gas grenades.

To the north of Lome, 120 km away, a hospital official in Kpalime near the Ghanaian border said seven people had been brought in for treatment following clashes.

Foreigners too come under attack

Back in the capital, foreigners were also caught up in the violence. Diplomats said angry youths had attacked French and Lebanese homes and businesses, and shops and supermarkets had been looted.

Some 200 to 300 members of the Lebanese community took refuge at a local hotel, including a 40-year-old who gave his first name as Hassan.

"If I'm alive today it's thanks to an old lady who hid me in her home," he told IRIN. "Our house was ransacked and totally destroyed and my wife, my child and I had to scramble over the wall to safety."

In the middle of the afternoon the sound of gunfire and tear gas grenades continued to echo across the seaside city.

"We're all very very worried, we're staying at home and keeping our heads down," one resident in the pro-opposition neighbourhood of Be told IRIN.

"The youths are trashing houses, bashing in the windows and setting fire to everything inside. They dug holes two metres deep in the road to stop the security forces coming in. They yell that they are ready to die, that they want to sort this out and they have nothing to lose."

"I understand why these young people are so angry," he said as shots rang out in the background. "It's blindingly obvious that the ruling party cheated. We saw soldiers taking away ballot boxes right in front of us. But violence isn't a lasting solution."

The election commission said on Tuesday that ruling party candidate Gnassingbe had won 60 percent of the vote in Sunday's poll while the main opposition candidate Bob-Akitani captured 38 percent. The results must be confirmed by the constitutional council and did not include polling stations where ballot boxes had been destroyed, the commission said.

Call to resist

An opposition spokesman for the main Union of Forces for Change (UFC) party, Jean-Pierre Fabre, branded the poll "a masquerade" and said that citizens had no choice but to stand up and fight the fraud.

"If you win an election, you have to govern. That's why Mr Bob-Akitani has to be president of the republic, or you have to have new elections in better conditions," he told IRIN.

"Everybody has to take to streets until the situation changes," he said. "Fraudsters can't be the ones who govern."

Fabre reiterated opposition claims that the international community was at least partly to blame for this week's trouble because it had not ensured free and fair elections in Togo.

The poll was spurred by the 5 February death in office of Eyadema, who had become Africa's longest serving leader. His son initially seized power with the backing of the military but under international pressure agreed to step down and run in an election.

The election was hastily organised under the supervision of a delegation of just three officials sent in by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There were no observers from the European Union, who said there was not enough time to send a team, and only 150-odd ECOWAS observers were dispatched to Togo for the poll last Sunday.

After polling finished, both ECOWAS and former colonial power France said the election had been basically fair, while conceding there had been a few irregularities.

"The attitude of the international community has become ridiculous and grotesque," Fabre told IRIN.

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