LIBREVILLE, GABON - Protesters in Gabon's capital city carried out widespread looting Friday, continuing the unrest that followed Wednesday's announcement that incumbent President Ali Bongo had narrowly defeated his challenger in a nationwide vote.
VOA reporter Idriss Fall in Libreville said unrest began in the neighborhood of Charbonnage and spread outward. He said most of the protesters are young men in their 20s, but it was unclear whether people who have taken to the streets are making a political statement or simply taking advantage of the situation.
"People should remember that whenever you have a political crisis, people would go outside and begin looting whatever is out there. So, to be honest, I can’t say that all the people going outside the streets are with [opposition leader Jean] Ping or not with Ping or have another purpose."
Fall also reported that the city hall in Gabon’s second largest city and major seaport, Port-Gentil, was burned down. He spoke to 26 leaders of the opposition who said that the number of people killed has reached 17 but said it is difficult to independently confirm that total. The nation’s interior ministry reports that only three people have been killed.
Over 1,000 arrests
The unrest began Wednesday following official results that show Bongo with 49.8 percent of the vote and challenger Ping with 48.2 percent.
Interior Minister Pacome Moubelet Boubeya says more than 1,000 people have been arrested nationwide, including as many as 800 in the capital. He confirmed three deaths in the violence.
Buildings throughout downtown Libreville, including the National Assembly, were set ablaze Thursday. There were also attempts to set fire to City Hall, the broadcasting house, a state newspaper’s headquarters and various residences, according to an interior ministry statement that accuses opposition supporters of planning the attacks ahead of time.
In Washington, the State Department urged all sides to come together peacefully to avoid future unrest. It said “appropriate actions” may be considered going forward.
"We deplore the escalation of violence following the release of those … provisional election results by the government," spokesman John Kirby said Thursday. "We call upon the security forces to respect the constitutionally guaranteed rights of all Gabonese citizens and of all residents of Gabon."
Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Libreville issued a security message advising American citizens of "widespread, violent demonstrations, rioting and looting" in the capital and urging them to remain in safe locations.
"Security forces have responded to the situation with tear gas and have placed roadblocks at major arterial roads, cutting off transportation across the city. There is also debris and burned cars blocking the roads in some areas," according to the security message.
Ping is disputing the results showing he lost by about 5,000 votes. He said his campaign has evidence of election rigging, which he plans to present to Gabon's constitutional court.
At issue are the results from one province, where the results show nearly 100 percent voter turnout, with Bongo receiving 95 percent of the vote.
Some members of the electoral commission resigned as the results were announced Wednesday.
While not commenting whether Washington would ask for a recount, the State Department called on the Gabonese government to release results for each individual polling station.
The State Department said those provisional results still need to be certified by Gabon’s constitutional court.
"We are asking that the legal procedures for certification of the results be followed according to Gabonese law in a fair and transparent manner,” said Kirby.
UN calls for calm
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for Gabon to remain peaceful after the hotly contested poll.
"The secretary-general urges all concerned political leaders and their supporters to refrain from further acts that could undermine the peace and stability of the country," his spokesman said in a statement. "He also calls on the authorities to ensure that the national security forces exercise maximum restraint in their response to protests."
Government conducted raids
A government spokesman said security forces raided the opposition building in search of people who had set fires near the parliament building earlier in the night.
"Armed people who set fire to the parliament had gathered at Jean Ping's headquarters along with hundreds of looters and thugs. ... They were not political protesters but criminals," Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze told the French news agency AFP.
The U.S. embassy called for all individual polling station results to be published, after it said observers witnessed "many systemic flaws and irregularities" in the voting. The irregularities included polling stations opening late and "last-minute changes to voting procedures."
Both candidates declared victory after Saturday's vote, and each side accused the other of fraud during the vote count.
Gabon does not have a run-off system, so the candidate with the most votes in the 10-candidate field wins the election.
Ping was running to end a half-century of Bongo family rule. Ali Bongo succeeded his father, Omar Bongo, who died in 2009 after 42 years in office.
Esha Sarai and VOA Afrique contributed to this report.