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Most leaders of the attacks on Sierra Leone’s military barracks and prisons arrested as curfew eases

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ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Sierra Leone’s president said most leaders of attacks on the nation’s main military barracks and prisons had been arrested and normalcy had returned across the country after a 24-hour curfew was relaxed to a dusk-to-dawn lockdown.

The attacks early Sunday morning surprised residents and security forces in the West African nation and raised fears of a possible coup in a troubled region.

But “most of the leaders” of the attacks now have been arrested and “calm has been restored,” President Julius Maada Bio said in a Sunday night address.

In this Sept. 2022 photo, Julius Maada Bio, president of Sierra Leone, speaks at the start of the Transforming Education Summit at United Nations headquarters. Bio declared a nationwide curfew Sunday after gunmen attacked the West African country’s main military barracks in the capital, raising fears of a breakdown of order amid a surge of coups in the region. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP, File)

Residents in the capital city of Freetown were awoken by sounds of heavy gunfire as gunmen tried to break into the key armory in the country’s largest military barracks, located near the presidential villa.

They engaged in sustained gunfire with security forces and targeted major detention centers – including the central prison holding more than 2,000 inmates – and freed or abducted an unconfirmed number of people, authorities said.

Videos on social media appeared to show dozens of inmates pouring into the streets to hurriedly escape around the same time that security forces were engaged in a shootout with the attackers on the outskirts of the city.

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The attacks deepened political tension in West and Central Africa where coups have surged, with eight military takeovers since 2020, including in Niger and Gabon this year. West Africa’s regional economic bloc ECOWAS — of which Sierra Leone is a member — described the attacks as a plot “to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order” in the country.

The attacks were “an attempt to undermine the peace and stability we have worked so hard to achieve,” said Bio, whose reelection in a disputed vote in June has raised political tensions in the country still healing from a 11-year civil war that ended more than two decades ago.

“Security operations and investigations are ongoing (and) we will ensure that those responsible are held accountable through due process,” Bio said.

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The 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew will remain in effect until further notice, Information Minister Chernor Bah said.

“While we encourage citizens to return to their normal activities…, we continue to urge everyone to remain calm but vigilant, and to report any suspicious or unusual activity to the nearest police station,” Bah said.

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