Djibouti police firing tear gas clashed Friday with demonstrators who turned out in their thousands in an unprecedented protest to demand the departure of President Ismael Omar Guelleh, an AFP reporter said.
The protest by opposition supporters had started peacefully at around 2:00 pm (1100 GMT) but the demonstrators then decided to set up camp outside a stadium, vowing to remain there until their demand is met.
After dusk, the standoff escalated into clashes, pitting demonstrators hurling stones against riot police firing tear gas grenades.
The area facing the interior ministry was blocked to traffic, with only police vehicles screeching past with their sirens wailing.
Two burned-out cars could be seen near the el-Hannan hospital; other vehicles were damaged and glass from broken car windows crunched underfoot.
The rare demonstration in the tiny Horn of Africa country was organised amid mounting opposition to the president, who last year had the constitution amended to allow him to seek a third mandate in upcoming April elections.
« IOG out », read one banner, using the president’s initials, as most Djiboutians do. « No to a third mandate », read another banner.
When the demonstration started opposition leaders addressed a peaceful crowd consisting mainly of students.
Colonel Abdillahi Abdi Farah, the national police chief, told AFP that the protestors were no more than 600 to 700.
But the crowd swelled as several thousand protestors set up camp at the entrance of a stadium facing the interior ministry, with the intention of staying there until their demand is met.
Later in the afternoon, the president of the Union for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of three opposition parties, Ismael Guedi Hared, put the number of demonstrators at 40,000.
« This peaceful popular uprising reflects the desire of the Djiboutian people to see the fall of the ruling regime, » he told AFP.
Demonstrators were determined to hunker down in front of the stadium for as long as necessary, mimicking the protracted protests on Cairo’s Tahrir square that got the better of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old rule.
Asked if he hoped for an Egypt-like scenario, Hared said: « Yes, that’s it. »
« We came out here to stay. We will leave when the regime collapses, » said Habiba, a young student from Djibouti University.
« We don’t want you here anymore, IOG, » shouted Hassan, a young unemployed Djiboutian from the capital’s Balbala neighbourhood.
Security forces were deployed en masse but initially refrained from attempting to break up the protest.
Small groups of protesters could still be seen in the streets later in the night after police broke up the gathering and the clashes died down, an AFP correspondent said.
The national radio and television made no mention of the protests in their Friday evening broadcasts.
The 63-year-old Guelleh has been in power since 1999 and the new constitution allows him to stand for another six-year term in the April 8 elections.
Djibouti, a former French territory, sits in a strategic location commanding the strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
It has borders with Somalia’s breakaway state of Somaliland, Ethiopia, Eritrea and faces Yemen, where protests demanding long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster have left 10 people dead since Sunday.
Students had already held smaller protests and clashed with police earlier this month, although they were demonstrating mainly against the marking system in law exams.
The authorities had arrested several people in the aftermath of the protests, including opposition activists and a prominent human rights campaigner.