Huge demo in Congo against president's bid to extend rule

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A man holds a placard reading "Congo is not the property of N'Guesso" during an opposition demonstration in Brazzaville on September 27, 2015

A man holds a placard reading "Congo is not the property of N'Guesso" during an opposition demonstration in Brazzaville on September 27, 2015. Thousands of people staged a mass demonstration in Congo's capital Brazzaville to protest plans by veteran ruler Denis Sassou Nguesso to try to extend his rule. AFP PHOTO / LAUDES MARTIAL MBON (AFP Photo/Laudes Martial Mbon)

Brazzaville (AFP) - Thousands of people staged a mass demonstration in Congo's capital Brazzaville Sunday to protest at plans by veteran ruler Denis Sassou Nguesso to try to extend his rule.

The rally was the biggest since Sassou Nguesso returned to power in 1997, an AFP journalist said, stretching for almost a kilometre along a main boulevard in the city centre.

"Sassou out!" echoed through Brazzaville's central Boulevard des Armees as some protesters carried banners reading "Sassoufit", a play on words that sounds like "that is enough" in French, the nation's official language.

The roughly two-hour demonstration ended without violence, though some local businesses closed up early fearing there might be trouble.

If a planned referendum is approved on changes to allow Sassou Nguesso to run again -- dubbed a "constitutional coup" by the opposition -- he would be eligible to contest elections next year and extend his total of three decades in power.

Under the country's current constitution, he has already served the maximum two terms as president and is over the age limit of 70 to run for the nation's top office.

Sassou Nguesso, a former rebel leader, on Tuesday announced the plans for a plebiscite on constitutional changes but gave no dates for the vote.

The 72-year-old president had previously convened a "national dialogue", which came out "by a large majority" in favour of amending the constitution to remove the term and age limits.

The changes would effectively pave the way for him to stand for a third term in 2016.

During the demo, one of the leaders of the opposition Union for Congolese Democracy (UDC) told the crowd the nation's people would need to decide how to respond to the president's manoeuvres.

"When president Sassou Nguesso announces the date of the referendum, we will put out an appeal to the people," said Andre Okombi Salissa.

"After Niger, Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, now it is Congo's turn," he added, referring to democracy movements that have met varying degrees of success across the African continent in recent years.

Sassou Nguesso was president from 1979 until 1992. He then served as opposition leader and returned to power at the end of a brief civil war in 1997 in which his rebel forces ousted president Pascal Lissouba.

He was elected president in 2002, then again in 2009, prompting cries of fraud from his foes.

"The time of change is upon us because we have already had more than 30 years with the same leader," said Mathias Dzon, a leader from opposition group Frocad.