Calm returns to Benin after post-election violence

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Cotonou (AFP) - Calm appeared to return to Benin late Thursday following two days of angry post-election violence in which at least two people died, as the definitive results of the parliamentary polls were published.

"Turnout... was 27.1 percent," the president of Benin's Constitutional Court, Joseph Djogbenou, announced, higher than the 23 percent previously when preliminary results were released.

"Considering the irregularities and the disturbances (during the vote), these are still not of a nature to compromise the validity and transparency of the vote," said Djogbenou, who is close to President Patrice Talon.

Violence broke out on Wednesday shortly after the provisional results were announced of Sunday's vote which had been held without a single opposition candidate.

Two former heads of state, Boni Yayi, who was president from 2006 until 2016, and Nicephore Soglo, who held office between 1991 and 1996, had urged Talon to annul the vote which they described as an "electoral state coup".

Earlier, soldiers had fired shots as they clamped down on the second day of angry demonstrations.

Large numbers of troops and riot police -- as well as hundreds of protesters manning burning barricades -- squared off in the streets of Benin's economic capital Cotonou.

A witness said three people were killed Thursday as soldiers opened fire, and a video seen by AFP showed troops shooting as protesters fled.

"The police and soldiers... they started firing, they chased people," said a resident. "We heard shots, lots of shots."

A woman died on Thursday after being wounded the day before, medical sources said, and a man was brought to hospital with a gunshot wound to the back.

In the town of Kandi, some 620 kilometres (385 miles) to the north, a young man was also killed late Wednesday, by shots fired by soldiers.

"They aimed at him," the victim's father told AFP. "The bullet went through him. My child is dead."

The protests began hours after initial results released on Wednesday showed a record low turnout in Sunday's election.

On Thursday, soldiers deployed in force.

"They made a brutal incursion," said one witness, a relative of former president Thomas Boni Yayi who had led calls for a boycott of Sunday's ballot and whose house has become a focal point of protests.

"They fired bursts of bullets," said the witness.

Interior Minister Sacca Lafia told French radio RFI some officers had "gone against given orders" and those found guilty would receive the "toughest punishment".

- 'Democracy is precious'-

Protestors chanting slogans against President Talon have torched businesses, hurled stones and petrol bombs, and smashed the windows of government buildings.

Police fired tear gas to break up crowds, and protestors tried to throw some of the canisters back.

"Talon... will not be able to kill our democracy," one demonstrator said.

"Democracy is precious to us, the people of Benin," said another. "That is why we have protested."

One of the country's largest cotton factories -- a sector in which Talon made his fortune before embarking on politics -- was set on fire.

"Protesters set the factory on fire," said a firefighter. "Everything burned."

The UN envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, was holding talks with regional leaders and officials in Benin to ensure "a peaceful solution", UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Thursday, noting a "high-handed response from the security forces."

"We are closely following the situation in Benin," Dujarric said.

"We note with concern the ongoing tension and unrest, resulting in destruction of property and high-handed response from the security forces."

- 'Crackdown' -

Tough new eligibility criteria effectively barred opposition parties from fielding candidates in last Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Opposition leaders asked people not to vote, and the preliminary results showed that over three-quarters of the country's five million registered voters heeded the call.

"The people demand the return of democracy," Boni Yayi told reporters on Monday, calling on people to resist the incumbent president. "Talon will walk over our dead bodies."

Events in the small West African state has given rise to warnings from civil society and rights groups inside and outside Benin.

Amnesty International, ahead of the vote, said a "wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests" had reached an "alarming level."

Following a meeting of ministers on Thursday afternoon, the Benin government noted the "professionalism" of the security forces in their efforts to maintain public order.

Sizeable contingents of police and the army were still stationed in Cotonou late Thursday, blocking access to Yayi's residence.