BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — Downtown Brazzaville was on lockdown Monday, after security forces surrounded the home of a high-ranking officer, parking armored personnel carriers on the road leading to his house and sending a military Mi-8 helicopter to circle overhead, witnesses said.
The officer in question managed to slip away, seeking refuge at a United Nations compound in the capital of this central African nation, said a military official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. "Col. Marcel Ntsourou turned himself to the United Nations force in Brazzaville 15 minutes ago," said the official early Monday afternoon.
It was not completely clear why the military had blocked off Ntsourou's house, but soon after heavy gunfire erupted. By afternoon, sporadic shots could still be heard. An Associated Press reporter saw the security cordon being erected around Ntsourou's residence, including several armored cars, as well as a military helicopter flying overhead.
Police asked businesses in the area, as well as government offices, to close. Residents say they were instructed to fetch their children from nearby schools and to evacuate their families to another part of the city. "I just picked up my kids from the Henri Lopez Institute, under orders from an official at the school," said Rosine Ngouala, the rattled mother of two elementary-school students, as she was evacuating.
The colonel at the heart of Monday's clash was once considered close to Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, serving as deputy secretary of the country's powerful National Security Council, the body overseeing military affairs in this nation on Africa's western coast. Ntsourou fell from grace last year, following a mysterious March 4, 2012 fire at an arms depot in the Mpila neighborhood of the capital. That fire led to a massive explosion, setting off a shower of war-grade weapons, including rockets, airplane bombs and missiles, which flattened a one-square-mile area of the capital, killing at least 200 people, many of whom were 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, suggesting it was an attempted coup. Ntsourou has always maintained that he was falsely accused, calling the charges politically motivated. He was allowed to return to his home in Brazzaville's downtown, and 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.
Authorities have refused to comment on Monday's events. 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.