Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio accused the main opposition party of orchestrating a spate of violent incidents, deepening a political standoff that risks undermining efforts to contain a coronavirus outbreak.
Eighteen people died in three riots in separate parts of the country , including a disturbance at Freetown central prison on April 29 which started after an inmate tested positive for the virus.
In a televised address, Bio claimed members of the All People’s Congress (APC) party were behind the violence.
“These attacks are premeditated, orchestrated and executed with a clear objective – to make the state ungovernable,” he said in an unscheduled broadcast.
The APC denied the accusations. “It is shocking, the claims the president is making,” party spokesman Sidi Yayah Tunis said.
Last week, the UN called on authorities and political parties to work together to avoid distracting from the fight against the virus, which so far has infected 291 people and killed 17.
Two prominent opposition members were detained without charge. Amnesty International and local rights groups called for their immediate release.
Without referring to specific incidents, Bio said recent arrests were not politically motivated, but linked to investigations into violence. Authorities will take further steps to protect security and the rule of law, he said.
As part of the country’s response to the health crisis, courts are closed and serious offenders can be held without bail, the chief justice ruled last month.
The APC and Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party are long-time foes. After beating an APC candidate to the presidency in 2018, Bio launched a crackdown on alleged graft that saw several former APC ministers imprisoned.