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Togo cracks down on opposition

/ Source: The Associated Press

Security forces used tear gas and batons to scatter hundreds of opposition demonstrators Friday, and tension heightened between Togo and its neighbors over what West African and other leaders call a Togolese military coup d’etat.

Five West African leaders refused an invitation to Togo’s northern city of Kara for a meeting with Togo authorities on ending the constitutional crisis, saying they preferred to meet in the capital, Lome, instead. The leaders then offered to meet Togo officials in Niger.

Togolese leaders never explained why they wanted to meet in Kara, but the capital has be beset by unrest in recent days and Kara is a stronghold of the Gnassingbes.

Hundreds of people gathered early Friday in the capital’s southern neighborhood of Be, a dusty, overcrowded area long a stronghold of opposition against dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema, who died Saturday.

Appeals for U.S. help
Demonstrators angered by the iron-fisted military’s installation of Eyadema’s son, Faure Gnassingbe, as president blocked the roads with tires and set them ablaze, singing as they danced around the flames.

The crowd of mostly students called on the United States to help weed out Gnassingbe before a new era of military tyranny has time to sink roots in this small West African country.

“We are launching an appeal to the USA to help us fight this regime,” said Kofi Awokou, a 30-year-old mechanic. “We want George Bush to give us guns or call in the army to sack the president.”

All around him, teenagers in sunglasses — and even an old woman — performed a synchronized dance, with movements mimicking the act of mowing down enemies with machine guns.

“We know how to shoot,” Awokou said. “We are ready to fight.”

Opposition leaders say at least 10 people were injured by police. The number could not be independently verified.

The White House on Thursday called on Togo to move quickly toward free national elections. President Bush strongly supports efforts by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States to promote a democratic transfer of power, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Neighbors want elections
On Friday, two French reporters and a photographer were arrested while covering the demonstrations. The journalists asked The Associated Press not to identify them or their organization.

The West African delegation intended to pressure Gnassingbe to hand over power to the speaker of parliament and arrange new elections, as had been specified in the constitution before the army installed Gnassingbe last week.

The delegation was formed during Wednesday’s emergency summit of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States. The ECOWAS leaders declared that the Togolese military had committed a coup d’etat in anointing Gnassingbe on Saturday, hours after his father died of a heart attack.

On Friday, the presidents of Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Ghana and Benin met in Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou, with the speaker of Togo’s parliament, Fanbare Natchaba.

“The heads of state meeting at Cotonou ask President (Mamadou) Tandja of Niger to invite the Togolese authorities to Niamey” on Saturday, the statement said.

They wanted to advise Togo authorities “of the positions of ECOWAS on the Togolese situation,” the statement said. “If these authorities do not show up for the reunion, they risk sanctions.”

Sanctions threatened
The 52-nation African Union, which has been trying to shed the continent’s legacy of despots seizing power through the barrel of a gun, also has threatened to impose sanctions on Togo.

The protests in Lome were the result of a call Thursday by opposition leader Harry Olympio, who went into hiding this week, fearful that he is being hunted by police.

“I’m calling on Togo’s people to stand up for themselves,” Olympio said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. “We will continue to fight and apply pressure until there is a rightful leader in Togo. What we have now is a coup d’etat.”

Olympio is a nephew of Togo’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio, who was killed at the gates of the U.S. Embassy in a 1963 coup that brought Eyadema to power. He runs the opposition party Rally for the Support of Democracy and Development with his cousin, Gilchrist Olympio, who lives in exile in Paris and is the son of the first president.

At the Olympio home in Be, the leader’s wife and three children were visibly shaken, fearful of being targeted by government forces. Near their front door, a man beaten by police sat with bandages around his head.

“I fear for my children,” said Michelle Olympio, sitting on the front porch of their home, where the smell of burning tires wafted through the air.

Eyadema’s security forces were accused of killing hundreds of protesters and opposition members during his 38 years in power. Despite their losing history against the riot brigades, the opposition keeps pressing.

On Friday, police chased packs of demonstrators down the dirt roads, firing tear gas whenever they lingered to form a crowd.

“Where is George Bush?” screamed one passing man.