Protests Rage Over Togo Leadership Dispute

Police in riot gear faced off with crowds who blocked roads and intimidated residents Monday during a general strike to protest the army's installation of Faure Gnassingbe (search) to succeed his late father as president.

Businesses shut down in response to the strike call and the tension that has been growing since President Gnassingbe Eyadema (search) died of a heart attack Feb. 5 after 38 years of oppressive rule. His son has defied international and domestic calls to step down.

A spokesman for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search), who heads the 52-nation African Union (search), said his country would do whatever was needed to ensure peace in the region. Obasanjo has spearheaded efforts by West African leaders to pressure Togo to reverse the installation of Gnassingbe as president.

"Whatever it takes to not only protect the territoriality of our nation, but also to ensure there's peace, democracy and stability in the West African sub-region, we will do," said Femi Fani-Kayode, a spokesman for Obasanjo.

The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS (search), demanded last week that Togo roll back the constitutional changes that legalized Gnassingbe's installation.

Both ECOWAS and the African Union threatened sanctions. Fani-Kayode would not say whether Nigeria or ECOWAS were considering sending troops into Togo.

In Lome's Be neighborhood, an opposition stronghold, people trying to move through barricades in cars or motorcycles were chased away by the mobs. Some were beaten for breaking the strike.

"Liberate Togo! Liberate Togo!" the crowds shouted, chasing a terrified old woman on a motorcycle taxi who luckily got away.

Francis Attiabwe, armed with a slingshot, defiantly displayed five stitches across his scalp where he said a soldier hit him with a rifle butt during demonstrations Saturday. He also had large bruises on his back and arms.

"They've killed us for years," said Attiabwe, 27. "They killed our mothers. They killed our grandmothers, but they will not kill us again. We must win!"

Others in the crowd, using their shirts to cover their faces, blew whistles as they dragged hulks of burned cars to block the road.

Elsewhere in the capital, people gathered in the streets to discuss the crisis.

Soldiers armed with rifles and long sticks patrolled Lome's main beachfront boulevard on foot, while trucks packed with riot police moved slowly through the burned streets of Be.

The strike was also called as a day of mourning for those killed during protests Saturday. Opposition leaders said seven were killed, while government officials confirmed three dead.

Opposition leaders said police fired into a crowd Saturday. Interior Minister Akila Esso-Boko said police fired in the air when protesters surrounded them and tried to take their guns.

Instead of following the constitution's provision that the speaker of parliament become interim president until national elections could be held in 60 days, the military had parliament amend the constitution so that Gnassingbe could complete his father's term, which expires in 2008.

The African Union, headed by Nigerian president Obasanjo, expressed concern Saturday over "the rapid deterioration of the situation in Togo" and condemned "the repression of the peaceful demonstration, which caused the loss of human lives Saturday morning."

Fani-Kayode reiterated a warning to Togo not to harm the sizable Nigerian community in the nation of 5 million.

"We certainly wouldn't sit there idly and watch our citizens being killed or persecuted, or in any way harmed," he said.

ECOWAS is expecting a response to its demands from Togo by the end of Tuesday, ECOWAS spokeswoman Adrienne Diop said. She said the first stage of sanctions would include a ban on participation in ECOWAS meetings, but that ECOWAS could go further and impose trade sanctions.

"Troops are always the last option," she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also voiced concern, saying both sides should "exercise maximum restraint while efforts continue to find an early and peaceful solution to the country's current crisis," said a statement released by his office.

The United States, Britain and France also have criticized developments in Togo.