FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Sierra Leone's president said most of the leaders of weekend attacks on the nation’s main military barracks and prisons had been arrested, though the capital remained tense on Monday with many streets empty after a 24-hour curfew was relaxed to a dusk-to-dawn lockdown.
After an early Sunday morning attack that raised fears of a possible coup in a troubled region, security forces continued to hunt for fleeing suspects and inmates freed from one of the country's major prisons.
However, "calm has been restored," President Julius Maada Bio said in a Sunday night address, adding that security operations and investigations continued.
On Monday, the president received a delegation from West Africa's regional economic bloc of ECOWAS — of which Sierra Leone is a member — and from Nigeria who he said visited to "convey a message of solidarity" from the bloc.
Residents in the capital 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 in a heavily guarded part of the city.
The gunmen exchanged fire for several hours with security forces. They also 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.
Not much is known publicly about the identities or intentions of the attackers or those killed, though former President Ernest Bai Koroma said one of his military guards was killed on duty at his residence in the capital while another was taken away.
About 100 of the freed inmates have reported back at the prisons and four of the attackers have been arrested, a spokesman for the Sierre Leonean Police told The Associated Press.
In interviews with local media, some of the attackers said their objective was "to clean up the system," not to target civilians.
"Their primary objective happens to be breaking into the arms and ammunition store, and they were able to cater away some huge amounts which they scattered around in the capital," said Abdul Fatorma, a Sierra Leonean analyst and chief executive of the Campaign for Human Rights Development International.
Kars de Bruijne, head of the Sahel program at the Clingendael Institute, said the assailants numbered more than 50 and ruled out the possibility that it was a random criminal incident.
"It has been increasingly easy to get weapons, particularly through the border with Guinea," Bruijne said.
Neighboring Guinea remains politically unstable after a coup in 2021. Sierra Leone itself is still healing from a 11-year civil war that ended more than two decades ago. Its population of 8 million people is among the poorest in the world.
The attacks deepened political tensions in West and Central Africa where coups have surged, with eight military takeovers since 2020, including in Niger and Gabon this year.
The bloc of ECOWAS described the attacks as a plot "to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order."
The attacks were "an attempt to undermine the peace and stability we have worked so hard to achieve," said Bio, who was reelected in a disputed vote in June. Two months after he was reelected, police said they arrested several people, including senior military officers planning to use protests "to undermine peace."
The 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew will remain in effect until further notice, Information Minister Chernor Bah said, as he encouraged residents "to remain calm but vigilant."
But many in the capital and across the country remained indoors, worried about possible violence.
"I can’t risk my son’s life," said Kady Kamara, who did not take her son to school. She stayed away from the market where she works.
In Central Freetown, Adama Hawa Bah, whose house is close to the Pademba Road Prison, said she saw inmates walking freely after the prison was attacked.
"Many are hiding among us," Bah said. "We would rather be safe indoors than be taken by surprise out there."