Demonstration in Brazzaville, Congo
Supporters of Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, the Interim president of the Congolese Movement for Democracy and Integral Development demonstrate at the candidate head quarter in Brazzaville on March 23, 2016 MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Heavy gunfire broke out on Monday (4 April) morning in the Republic of the Congo's capital Brazzaville between Congolese police and unidentified gunmen. This is the first significant outbreak of violence in the oil-producing country since President Denis Sassou Nguesso won re-election on 20 March in a disputed poll that extended his 32 years in power.

At least 18 people were killed by security forces during demonstrations demanded by the opposition ahead of a referendum in October during which Sassou Nguesso pushed through constitutional changes to remove term and age limits that would have prevented him from standing for office again.

Opposition candidates, who have since called for a campaign of civil disobedience, described the election as a fraud. Denouncing irregularities, the US State Department also criticised the regime's decision to cut all telecommunications during the poll.

Gunfire, barricades in opposition strongholds

Gunfire was reported in the opposition strongholds of Makelekele and Bacongo in southern Brazzaville at 03:00 local time (02:00 GMT) and lasted until 06:00. The violence resumed two hours later as military helicopters patrolled southern Brazzaville, witnesses told Reuters.

Radio France Internationale reported a potential attack on a military post by men described as belonging to the so-called Ninja militia group. An anonymous official confirmed this to the AP news agency.

Once close to former Prime Minister Bernard Kolela whose son Guy Brice Parfait came second in the presidential election, the rebel "Ninja" movement from the southern districts of Brazzaville was later reclaimed by Frédéric Bintsamou, better known as "Pastor Ntoumi". The Ninjas fought against Sassou-Nguesso's "Cobra" forces during the country's civil war.

In Makelekele, young opposition supporters, who were chanting songs asking Sassou Nguesso to leave, erected barricades near the main roundabout. They were also reported to have set fire to the local mayor's office and police headquarters.

The editor-in-chief of Made In Africa, Ifrikia Kengué posted a picture allegedly showing the mayor's office in Makelekele on fire.

A France24 journalist, Alexandre Capron, described a "confused situation" when he posted pictures purportedly showing residents from the Southern districts fleeing towards the northern neighbourhoods with bags on Monday morning.

The US Embassy in Brazzaville, which said it was scaling down its operations and cancelling routine Consular Services "in light of the ongoing threat", recommended US citizens shelter where they are.

In the event of political demonstrations, the French Embassy in the city also advised French nationals "should remain vigilant and observe the largest reserve in all circumstances". "It is especially necessary to keep away from any gathering or crowd movement".

A general strike last week was largely observed in southern Brazzaville but ignored in the capital's north, where Sassou Nguesso is popular.