ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Attacks on Sierra Leone’s main military barracks and prisons were a failed coup attempt and have resulted in the arrest of 13 military officers, the government’s spokesman said Tuesday.
The attackers attempted to “overthrow the elected government of Sierra Leone,” Information Minister Chernor Bah said at a briefing to reporters about the early morning attacks that took security forces and residents by surprise in the usually peaceful capital city of Freetown on Sunday.
“Thirteen military officers are currently in custody and one other civilian … in this incident we are now calling a failed coup,” Bah said.
Coming months after Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio was reelected for a second term in a disputed vote in June, a coup attempt in the West African nation further raises political tensions in West and Central Africa. Coups have surged in the region, with eight military takeovers since 2020, including in Niger and Gabon this year.
Residents in Freetown were awoken by sounds of heavy gunfire Sunday as gunmen broke into the key armory in the country’s largest military barracks, located near the presidential villa in a heavily guarded part of the city.
The attackers – in their dozens – also targeted two prisons in the city, including the central prison where most of the more than 2,000 inmates were freed, according to Col. Sulaiman Massaquoi, acting head of the Sierra Leone Correctional Service.
A civilian was also arrested in connection with the attack and more than 100 of the freed inmates have reported back at the prisons amid a manhunt for fleeing suspects, the information minister said.
Gunshots were heard in the capital on Tuesday as security forces tried to arrest one of the fleeing suspects. “The person of interest has been arrested and is now in custody of the security forces,” the information ministry said in a statement.
Many of the attackers were either hiding or still on the run across the country, the Chief of Defense Staff Lt. Gen. Peter Lavahun told the briefing.
He said the armory had no closed-circuit television (CCTV) but that officials were checking to confirm the number of weapons seized. “We were able to recover two vehicles containing arms and ammunition that were carted away,” said Lavahun.
Many in Freetown and across the country remained indoors on Tuesday, more than a day after the government relaxed a 24-hour curfew to a night lockdown.
There have been political tensions in Sierra Leone since Bio's reelection in a vote that the opposition has said was rigged in his favor. Two months after he was reelected, police said they arrested several people, including senior military officers planning to use protests “to undermine peace.”
Neighboring Guinea remains politically unstable after a coup in 2021. Sierra Leone itself is still healing from a 11-year civil war that ended more than two decades ago. Its population of 8 million people is among the poorest in the world.
West Africa's regional economic bloc of ECOWAS — of which Sierra Leone is a member —- condemned the attacks and sent a delegation to “extend their support and solidarity” to the country's president.
By Chinedu Asadu, The Associated Press