The streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, came to life on Monday after a curfew was lifted after a day of armed clashes in Freetown. At the same time, the Sierra Leonean authorities continued to hunt down those responsible for the clashes that left 27 dead and 13 wounded in the ranks of troops loyal to the government the day before.

Army spokesman Col. Issa Bangura said security forces were hunting down active and retired soldiers who had orchestrated the attack. He said the fighting took place mainly in the barracks, where loyalist soldiers defended their positions. "We have launched a manhunt for all those involved in the attack, including current and retired soldiers," he told reporters.

The permanent curfew imposed on Sunday due to the violence was lifted at 6 a.m. local time and GMT on Monday morning. It will now be imposed every day from 21 p.m. to 6 a.m. until further notice, the Ministry of Communication announced overnight. He also urged citizens "to resume the normal course of their activities", but also to remain vigilant and to report "any suspicious or unusual behaviour" to the authorities.

Sunday's events have raised the spectre of a new coup attempt in West Africa, which since 2020 has seen coup attempts in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea, Sierra Leone's neighbour.

  • What exactly happened?

Residents of Freetown were awakened Sunday morning by sporadic gunfire and detonations. "I was woken up around 4:30 a.m. by a loud sound of machine guns and bombs coming from the Wilberforce barracks area," Susan Kargbo, a witness reached by phone, told AFP. "I was in shock, in a panic [...]. It was like wartime."

The government said gunmen tried to break into the main armory of the country's largest barracks, located near the president's residence, but were repelled by security forces. The attackers also targeted several prisons, including the Pademba Road Central Prison, which houses more than 2,000 inmates. According to the authorities, an unconfirmed number of people were released or abducted in the attacks.

Videos circulated on social media show dozens of people fleeing through the streets of the prison area. A video appears to show popular rapper Boss LAJ — jailed last year for theft — at large, according to the BBC, which was unable to authenticate the video. Other images show a few men in uniform, apparently under arrest, in the back or next to a military pick-up.

🔴Sierra Leone

🇸🇱 Several gunmen causing trouble in #Freetown have been apprehended, including the former bodyguard close to former President @ebklegacy. This raises questions about the possible involvement of the #APC in this failed coup attempt.

The struggle continues.

— Issa Sissoko Elvis (@DelphineSankara) November 26, 2023

Posts on social media identified a former member of former President Ernest Bai Koroma's inner circle (2007-2018) as one of the participants in the operation killed by security forces. The former president said on X (formerly Twitter) that a soldier assigned to guard him, Corporal Eddie Conteh, had been shot and killed at point-blank range at his residence and another had been kidnapped. He "strongly condemned" the attacks on state security and called for calm and the restoration of order.

Shortly after the attack, authorities declared an immediate curfew across the country. In a statement, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) spoke of an attempt to get hold of weapons from the armory, but also to "disturb peace and constitutional order", language commonly used for political coups.

  • Is this just a destabilization or an attempted coup d'état?

In an interview with France 24, Information Minister Chernor Bah refuses to talk about a coup. "It is clear that some people are using words that are too strong to know whether or not this is an attempted coup," he told Justice Baidoo, France 24's correspondent in Ghana. "What we do know is that they tried to attack several of our main sensitive facilities across the city and they were pushed back," he said, adding that an investigation was underway and the results would be released "for the public to see."

Importantly, the government has denied one of the many rumours circulating in the tense city of an attempt to take over national television, a classic of coups.

Speaking on state television on Sunday night, Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio was also vague, saying that "most of the leaders have been arrested," but did not elaborate on their identities or motives.

National Address On The Current Security Situation In Sierra Leone: Sunday, November 26th, 2023

— President Julius Maada Bio (@PresidentBio) November 26, 2023

Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said: "It's hard to be completely sure that this is a coup, but why release prisoners and look for weapons?" he asked. "No request has been made so far, but it is clear that some military personnel are unhappy."

The political situation in the West African country has been tense since the re-election in June of President Julius Maada Bio, whose victory is disputed by the main opposition candidate. In August, anti-government protests resulted in the deaths of six police officers and at least 21 civilians.

"There was a hope of easing post-election tensions with the return to their posts of the elected representatives of the APC [the All People's Congress, opposition party, editor's note], an opposition party, to their posts, after their boycott to protest against the lack of transparency of the electoral process and the results," the expert continued, recalling that an agreement mediated by the Commonwealth, The African Union and ECOWAS agreement was concluded between the government and the PCA in October. "However, the court-martial trial of some soldiers, accused of participating in the preparation of a coup in late July/early August, has begun, which has caused tensions within the army."

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For the time being, the situation in the country remains confused," said Francis Laloupo, an associate researcher at IRIS who specialises in the geopolitics of Africa. A faction of the army, as well as former soldiers, are designated as the instigators of what the government is content to describe as an 'attempt at destabilisation' in a country that has been weakened in recent years by an alarming deterioration in the economic situation. The events we have just witnessed are symptomatic of a crisis of democratic transitions, as is currently being observed in many countries today."

With AFP and Reuters

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