DJIBOUTI, Dec 22 – A Djibouti opposition group said at least 19 people were killed in clashes with police that began when people were marking a religious celebration, while the government said just nine people were wounded when police fought armed individuals.
The rival accounts made it difficult to determine what was precisely the cause or the number of casualties from the clashes early on Monday in the tiny Horn of Africa nation. It was not immediately possible to secure independent witness reports.
Djibouti, home to a regional port as well as U.S. and French military bases, has faced sporadic violence before, usually sparked by protests against the government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, whose party has a tight hold on power.
Kadar Abdi Ibraim, spokesman for the opposition coalition Union pour le Salut National, told Reuters the police first attacked people marking a religious celebration that he said had been banned. He said police then attacked a house where opponents were meeting.
He said at least 19 were killed and dozens wounded in the violence in the mainly Muslim nation which has a population of about 876,000.
A statement from Interior Minister Hassan Omar Mohamed, released on the presidency website, said “dozens of armed individuals” launched an attack on security forces in the Buldhoqo area. He said nine people were wounded, including a police officer. He did not identify the other wounded.
The minister said the violence was directed against the security forces to “destabilise our nation and sow divisions”. He said people “who act from abroad” stoked the violence but added that the situation was now under control.
In parliamentary polls in 2013, protesters clashed with police saying the results were rigged, a charge the government denied.
In 2011, anti-government demonstrators, who were buoyed by the revolutions then sweeping North Africa, demanded Guelleh step down. The authorities cracked down hard on the opposition.
The president has been in power since 1999 and a new presidential election is scheduled for April 2016.
Djibouti hosts the only U.S. military base in Africa, as well as a French base. The former French colony’s port has been used by foreign navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden’s shipping lanes, some of the busiest in the world.
Chinese officials said in November China was in talks with the government on building logistics facilities to support Chinese peacekeeping and anti-piracy missions. Djibouti’s president had earlier said China was discussing a military base.