Benin protesters, police clash

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Security forces in Benin’s commercial capital Cotonou fired weapons to disperse crowds protesting the exclusion of opposition parties from last Sunday’s parliamentary election, Reuters witnesses said.

Hundreds of people have protested since Wednesday, burning tyres and calling for President Patrice Talon to step down, rare unrest in the country of 11 million long seen as a bastion of stability in West Africa.

Security forces, backed by armoured military vehicles, used firearms to break up the protest, two Reuters witnesses said. It was not clear if they were using live rounds or firing directly at the crowd.

A video shared online appeared to show government forces firing guns and using water cannon. It was not immediately possible to verify the footage.

A Reuters witness saw two wounded protesters, one bleeding.

Police declined to comment and there was no confirmation on casualties.

The United Nations called for restraint.

“We note with concern ongoing tensions and unrest resulting in destruction of property and high-handed response from the security forces,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

The unrest followed the electoral commission decision to bar opposition parties from standing in the election because they were unable to meet strict criteria under a new election law to field candidates. Talon denied that was the intention of the law.

There was rioting in central Benin on Sunday, where opposition supporters burned houses, officials said.

Results announced on Tuesday gave two parties loyal to Talon total control of parliament. Supporters of Talon’s rival, former President Thomas Boni Yayi, protested.

On Thursday, the constitutional court validated the vote results, which had a turnout of 27%.

Talon and Boni Yayi have a tense relationship. In 2012, Boni Yayi accused Talon, a cotton magnate, of trying to poison him. Talon denied the accusations.

Talon defeated Boni Yayi’s preferred successor in a 2016 election when Boni Yayi was required by term limits to step down after 10 years in power.

In the run-up to the latest election, police dispersed a protest led by Boni Yayi with teargas. The authorities also cut off the internet on voting day.