Congo opposition cancels Friday protest in referendum row

A man holds a placard reading "Congo is not the property of N'Guesso" during an opposition demonstration in Brazzaville on September 27, 2015 (AFP Photo/Laudes Martial Mbon) (AFP/File)

Brazzaville (AFP) - Congo's opposition leaders cancelled a planned nationwide protest Friday aimed at pressuring the government to withdraw a constitutional amendment enabling President Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his three-decade rule.

Paul-Marie Mpouele of the FROCAD opposition coalition told AFP that protesters instead would use Friday to remember those who died in unrest ahead of a controversial referendum October 25 on constitutional change.

"There will be no march, today will be devoted to remembrance," Mpouele said, as 300 people turned out to pay homage to last week's victims of violence.

The government has said four people died in the unrest, but the opposition puts the toll at 20.

He gave no reason for the change of plan.

The country's two opposition coalitions had called nationwide protests Wednesday after the government announced that a landslide 92.96 percent of people voting in a Sunday's referendum had approved changes to the constitution allowing Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term next year.

In a joint statement they announced a campaign of "civil disobedience" to "denounce... the cheating by the government" and to "block the path to fraud and dictatorship".

The referendum proposed two amendments to the constitution, scrapping a 70-year presidential age ceiling as well as a two-term limit. Sassou Nguesso is 71 and has served two consecutive seven-year terms.

The veteran leader took power in 1979 and has been in office since then, bar five years, meaning he has ruled the central African country of 4.5 million people for more than 31 years.

Congo is one of several African countries currently facing the critical question of whether heads of state should be allowed to run beyond two terms in office.