BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — The center of Republic of Congo's capital was on lockdown Monday after security forces surrounded the home of a high-ranking officer who had been accused of plotting a coup. Armored personnel carriers blocked the road to his house and a military helicopter circled overhead as a blaze of heavy gunfire was heard.
By evening, Col. Marcel Ntsourou — once considered a close ally of the country's president — was in the custody of the country's security forces and was to be taken to a tribunal to face charges on Tuesday, said Col. Jules Mounkala Tchoumou, spokesman for the Congolese police.
It wasn't immediately clear what Ntsourou would be charged with. But as the former deputy security of the body overseeing military affairs, he fell from grace last year following a mysterious fire at an arms depot. A massive explosion set off a shower of war-grade weapons, including rockets and missiles, flattening a one-square-mile area of the capital and killing at least 200 people, many entombed inside their crushed homes.
In September, he was given a suspended five-year sentence for being what the state prosecutor called the lead accomplice in the explosion. At the time of his trial, government lawyers argued that the fire and subsequent explosion were part of a plot to destabilize the government.
Ntsourou has maintained he was falsely accused, calling the charges politically motivated. He was allowed to return to his home in Brazzaville's downtown. On Sunday, there were reports that his personal guard had had an altercation with a unit of Congolese soldiers, though the information could not immediately be confirmed.
Police asked local businesses and government offices in the area of Ntsourou's home to close. Residents were instructed to fetch their children from nearby schools and to evacuate to another part of the city.
"I just picked up my kids ... under orders from an official at the school," said Rosine Ngouala, the rattled mother of two elementary-school students, as she was evacuating.
Authorities mostly refused to comment on Monday's lockdown. Even during the heaviest shooting, Congolese state radio continued its normal broadcast, making no mention of the hostilities.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.