People fleeing violence gather at the Catholic Church of Moungali in Brazzaville
By Christian Elion and Philon Bondenga
BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Seventeen people have died in clashes that erupted in the wake of President Denis Sassou Nguesso's disputed re-election, according to a government statement released on national television and radio on Tuesday.
Gunbattles broke out on Monday in southern Brazzaville, an opposition stronghold, shattering the relative calm since the March 20 election that opposition candidates say was fraudulent.
Three police officers and two gunmen were killed in the clashes, police spokesman Jules Monkala Tchoumou said on Tuesday.
The government said former members of the "Ninja" militia that fought Sassou Nguesso in a 1997 civil war raided and set alight military, police and local government offices.
Twelve assailants and two civilians were among the dead, according to Tuesday's statement from the Ministry of Communication.
"The government informs the national and international public that during the operation launched during the assault, security services proceeded to arrest about 50 ex-militants who authored the attack," said Thierry Moungalla, the communication minister.
Residents of southern neighborhoods of the capital said that they had seen armed men in civilian attire but could not confirm whether they were indeed former Ninja militiamen.
In a joint statement released on Tuesday, Initiative for Democracy in Congo (IDC) and The Republic Front for the Respect of the Constitutional Order and Democratic Transition (FROCAD), did not comment on the Ninja allegations.
Instead the coalition urged the government to stop what it called "warlike operations", asked the international community to foster a political dialogue and called on Congo's population to participate in peaceful civil disobedience to end the crisis.
Guy Brice Parfait Koelas, the opposition candidate who came in second in March polls and whose father had once led the Ninjas, said in a statement on Monday that police had harassed residents of the southern neighborhoods since the elections and arrested and jailed people without reasonable cause.
On Tuesday morning, Brazzaville was quiet, though many shops and schools remained closed and only a few residents of southern neighborhoods who had fled to the north on Monday were willing to return home.
Sassou Nguesso has ruled the oil-producing Central African country for 32 of the last 37 years. He won re-election after pushing through a constitutional referendum last October that lifted age and term limits that would have prevented him from standing.
(Writing by Aaron Ross and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Makini Brice, Toni Reinhold)