Sierra Leone armoury attacked by ‘renegades,’ prisoners broken out

Sierra Leone said calm has been restored and a nationwide curfew imposed after pushing back “renegades” who attempted early Sunday to break into a military armoury in the capital city of Freetown. 

The West African country’s civil aviation authority urged airlines to reschedule flights after the curfew was declared. Meanwhile, a soldier on its frontier with neighbouring Guinea told Reuters they had been instructed to shut the border.

A Reuters journalist, who earlier witnessed an armed group of men commandeer a police vehicle near the Wilberforce barracks, said nearby streets were mostly empty.

“We’ll clean this society. We know what we are up to. We are not after any ordinary civilians who should go about their normal business,” one of the masked men, who was dressed in military fatigues, said before driving away.

An empty street with trees on either side.
The streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone, were empty Sunday after a nationwide curfew was declared. (TJ Bade/The Associated Press)

Sierra Leone has been tense since President Julius Maada Bio was re-elected in June — a result rejected by the main opposition candidate and questioned by international partners including the United States and the European Union.

In August 2022, at least 21 civilians and six police officers were killed in anti-government protests in Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from a 1991-2002 civil war in which more than 50,000 were killed and hundreds maimed. Bio said the protests were an attempt to overthrow the government.

Sierra Leone’s interior minister David Taluva told Reuters that the assailants had attacked a police barracks after running out of ammunition and had seized more arms from police officers.

Prison break

Sustained gunfire could still be heard in some neighbourhoods of Freetown as residents hunkered down in their homes around 3 p.m. GMT on Sunday, Reuters reporters said.

Sierra Leone’s information minister Chernor Bah said in a statement that most of Freetown was calm and under the control of security forces, which had engaged the assailants in the Jui district in the eastern fringes of the city.

Bah said that major detention centres, including the Pademba Road prisons, were attacked and inmates released by the unidentified assailants. This confirmed earlier reports from a government source.

A man with sunglasses speaks in the foreground, while a woman in a headwrap listens behind him. Surrounding them are people in military uniform.
Sierra Leone’s president and ruling party candidate Julius Maada Bio speaks to journalists after casting his vote for the June national elections. His re-election has been questioned by a number of international partners including the United States and the European Union. (Cooper Inveen/Reuters)

It was not immediately clear how many prisoners had broken out of the facility, which a U.S. State Department report said was designed for 324 inmates but held more than 2,000 in 2019.

Videos posted on social media, which were not authenticated by Reuters, showed several people fleeing from the area of the prison while gunshots could be heard in the background.

“The security forces were forced to make a tactical retreat. The prisons were thus overran,” said Bah, who had earlier issued a statement declaring a nationwide curfew and calling for people to stay indoors.

Restoring calm

The Economic Community of West African States condemned what it called an attempt by certain individuals to “acquire arms and disturb constitutional order” in Sierra Leone. The U.S. embassy in Freetown said such actions were not justified.

Bio praised the “gallant security forces” for repelling the “renegades” and said calm had been restored.

In the foreground, a person holding a scantron. In the background, a military policeman in uniform stands with arms crossed.
A military police member looks on as an election worker in Freetown counts ballots during the June national election. (Cooper Inveen/Reuters)

“We shall continue to protect the peace and security of Sierra Leone against the forces that wish to truncate our much-cherished stability,” Bio said on social media.

There have been eight military coups in West and Central Africa since 2020, shaking democracy in the region.

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