Congo capital on alert day after gunbattles

Brazzaville (AFP) - Congolese troops deployed across parts of the capital Brazzaville on Tuesday as business slowed to a trickle a day after fighting in opposition bastions that sent thousands fleeing for safety.

Following heavy gun battles that began before dawn on Monday and raged through the morning in the city's southern districts, sporadic gunfire continued until sunset but petered out overnight.

There was no immediate toll from the fighting, which came on the heels of a disputed presidential election and was blamed by the government on a rebel group known as "The Ninjas".

Troops deployed at key points throughout the city and manned roadblocks, searching the few cars and people out on the streets during Tuesday morning.

The southern districts of Makelekele and Mayana remained eerily quiet and few residents appeared to have returned home after fleeing the fighting in droves the day before.

Stalls were empty at the Total market, the city's biggest, while vendors only had fruit, vegetables, beans and onions on sale at the Makelekele market, where a handful of buyers did their shopping in a hurry.

Traffic was unusually thin on the main thoroughfare linking the southern districts to the city centre.

The government has issued no toll from what it called "a terrorist action" and has said it is investigating whether the assailants were linked to opposition figures who have contested President Denis Sassou Nguesso's re-election last month.

Late Monday, Congo's constitutional court confirmed the March 20 election victory of the former paratrooper colonel, who has ruled the country for more than 32 years despite accusations from critics of rampant corruption and nepotism.

The results of the poll, in which Sassou Nguesso took more than 60 percent of the vote, had been denounced by the five defeated candidates who alleged "massive fraud".

In a televised statement Monday, government spokesman Thierry Moungalla blamed the fighting on "disbanded Ninja Nsiloulou" fighters, saying they had attacked an army position as well as four police stations.

- 'Peace always under threat' -

The Ninjas is a rebel group which fought two civil wars in the 1990s and was headed by Protestant preacher Frederic Bintsamou, known as Pastor Ntumi, whose trademark colour is purple and who disbanded the group in return for a junior government position.

He recently came out in favour of presidential candidate Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, who came second to Sassou Nguesso in last month's vote with 15 percent.

In a phone interview with AFP on Tuesday, Kolelas said the government allegations against the rebels were "overly hasty."

"I want a totally impartial enquiry carried out," said Kolelas. "It's a masquerade," he added. "I'd like to see proof ... of what happened."

He also slammed a Monday ruling by the constitutional court that his request to have the results of four regions annulled was "inadmissable as it was filed after the constitutional deadlines".

He said the request had been filed on time.

"We live in a country where, whether you vote or not, peace is always under threat," said a woman in the city's restive south who gave her name as Julienne.

Moungalla said the trouble had erupted in the wake of the March vote, which he dubbed "a great moment of peaceful democracy".

In an apparent reference to the opposition, he said the government "does not yet have proof that candidates or their supporters are involved in this affair", but noted that investigations "are ongoing".

Last week, there were strikes in several southern districts in protest over the election results.

Congo has been on edge since an October constitutional referendum that ended a two-term limit on presidential mandates, allowing the 72-year-old head of state to run again.

Former colonial power France on Monday called for "restraint" and urged French citizens to stay at home.

Sassou Nguesso served as president from 1979 to 1992 and returned to power in 1997 following a civil war.

He won two successive terms in 2002 and 2009, but the results of both elections were contested by opposition parties.