FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Sierra Leone’s president said most of the ringleaders of weekend attacks on the country’s main military barracks and prisons had been arrested, although the capital remained tense Monday with many streets empty after the easing of 24-hour curfew in a dusk-to-dawn lockdown.
After an early Sunday morning attack fueled fears of a possible coup in a restive region, security forces continued to search for suspects and prisoners freed from one of the country’s largest prisons.
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However, “calm has been restored,” President Julius Maanda Bio said in a speech on Sunday night, adding that security operations and investigations were continuing.
On Monday, the president received a delegation from the West African regional economic bloc ECOWAS – of which Sierra Leone is a member – and from Nigeria which he said he visited to “convey a message of solidarity” from the bloc.
Residents of the capital Freetown were awakened by the sounds of heavy gunfire as gunmen tried to break into the key armory at the country’s largest military barracks, located near the presidential villa in a heavily guarded part of the city.
The gunmen exchanged fire for several hours with the security forces. They also targeted major detention centers – including the central prison that held more than 2,000 inmates – and freed or kidnapped an unconfirmed number of people, authorities said.
Not much is publicly known about the identities or intentions of the attackers or those killed, although former President Ernest Bai Koroma said one of his military guards was killed on duty at his residence in the capital, while another was taken .
About 100 of the freed prisoners have returned to prison and four of the attackers have been arrested, a spokesman for the Sierra Leone police told The Associated Press.
In interviews with local media, some of the attackers said their aim was to “cleanse the system”, not to target civilians.
“Their primary objective is to break into the arms and ammunition store and they managed to make off with some huge quantities scattered around the capital,” said Abdul Fatorma, an analyst from Sierra Leone and managing director of the Campaign for Human. International Rights Development.
Kars de Bruijne, head of the Sahel program at the Clingendael Institute, said the attackers numbered more than 50 and ruled out a random crime.
“It was getting easier and easier to get weapons, particularly through the border with Guinea,” Bruijne said.
Neighboring Guinea remains politically unstable after a 2021 coup. Sierra Leone itself is still healing from an 11-year civil war that ended more than two decades ago. The population of 8 million people is among the poorest in the world.
The attacks deepened political tensions in West and Central Africa, where coups have increased, with eight military withdrawals since 2020, including in Niger and Gabon this year.
The ECOWAS bloc described the attacks as a plan “to obtain weapons and disrupt peace and constitutional order.”
The attacks were “an attempt to undermine the peace and stability that we have worked so hard to achieve,” said Bio, who was re-elected in a contested vote in June. Two months after his re-election, police said they had arrested several people, including senior military officers who planned to use protests “to undermine the peace”.
The 9pm to 6am curfew will remain in place until further notice, Information Minister Sernor Ba said, as he encouraged residents to “remain calm but vigilant”.
However, many in the capital and across the country remained at home, worried about possible violence.
“I can’t risk my son’s life,” said Kadi Kamara, who did not take her son to school. He stayed away from the market where he works.
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In Central Freetown, Adama Hawa Bah, whose home is near Pademba Street Prison, said she saw prisoners walking around freely after the prison attack.
“Many are hiding among us,” Ba said. “We’d rather be safe indoors than be surprised out there.”