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Soldiers in Gabon fail in coup attempt against absent president

In this image from TV, a soldier who identified himself as Lt. Obiang Ondo Kelly, commander of the Republican Guard, reads a statement on state television broadcast from Libreville, Gabon on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

GABON STATE TV VIA AP

By MAX BEARAK | The Washington Post | Published: January 7, 2019

NAIROBI, Kenya Soldiers in the oil-rich Central African country of Gabon seized control of the national broadcaster early Monday morning and issued a statement claiming they had deposed the country's absent leader to "restore democracy." Four hours later, a spokesman for Gabon's government called the soldiers "mutineers" and "jokers" and said four out of five of them have been arrested.

Reports from news agencies said the coup attempt was accompanied by scattered gunfire in the capital, Libreville, and videos posted on social media showed armored vehicles speeding through the streets, while helicopters circled overhead.

After suffering from an apparent stroke in October, Gabon's president Ali Bongo traveled for treatment to Saudi Arabia and then to Morocco, where he has been recovering ever since. In his first public statement since falling ill, he issued a New Year's address from the Moroccan capital Rabat acknowledging he had been "through a difficult period" and promised to return soon.

The leaders of the attempted coup read out a statement on state radio in the pre-dawn hours denouncing Bongo. Lt. Kelly Ondo Obiang, the leader of the self-declared Patriotic Movement of the Youth of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon, said Bongo's New Year's address had "reinforced doubts about the president's ability to continue to carry out of the responsibilities of his office."

"If you are eating, stop; if you are having a drink, stop; if you are sleeping, wake up. Wake up your neighbors . . . rise up as one and take control of the street," he said over the radio.

By midmorning on Monday, however, it appeared the coup attempt had failed and that only one of its orchestrators remained at large.

"Calm has returned, the situation is under control," government spokesman Guy-Bertrand Mapangou said, adding that the gunfire earlier was to control a crowd.

An official close to the president's office told Radio France International that the strategic points in the country are under its control, including the radio and the army is seeking to resolve the situation without violence.

Internet had reportedly been cut in the in the capital and many areas were without electricity, but reports from news agencies indicated those services were quickly returning.

In his speech on state radio, Obiang had said the army high command failed in its mission to defend the country and called on the rank and file soldiers to "take control of all means of transport, army bases and security posts, armories, and airports."

He also called for the formation of a Council of National Restoration and invited members of civil society and opposition parties, as well as a former Republican Guard commander to meet together at the country's parliament.

Gabon lies on Africa's Atlantic coast, between the Republic of Congo and Cameroon. It was formerly ruled by France, which maintains a military presence there. Last week, the United States deployed 80 troops to Gabon to evacuate American citizens from nearby Congo in the event that a disputed election there turns violent.

Bongo came to power in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar, who ruled the country for 42 years. His narrow reelection in 2016 was marred by violence and accusations of fraud.

Bongo's half brother, Frederic, is in charge of Gabon's intelligence service and is closely aligned with the military.

The Washington Post's Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The army announced a coup in Libreville, Gabon.
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