Tens of thousands rally in support of Congo leader's bid to extend rule

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Supporters of Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso rally in Brazzaville on October 10, 2015

Supporters of Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso rally in Brazzaville on October 10, 2015 (AFP Photo/Laudes Martial Mbon)

Brazzaville (AFP) - Tens of thousands of supporters of Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso took to the streets of the capital Brazzaville on Saturday to back his controversial bid to change the constitution in order to remain in power.

The rally came ahead of an October 25 referendum that will determine whether the veteran leader -- who has already had three decades in power -- can seek another presidential term.

The constitution currently bars the 72-year-old from running again as there is an age limit of 70 as well as a ceiling of two mandates.

The Congolese government said Monday that the referendum would be on scrapping both the two-term limit and the age cap.

Authorities opened the campaign period for the referendum on Friday.

Tens of thousands thronged the city centre on Saturday, AFP journalists saw, with some Sassou Nguesso supporters at the event wearing T-shirts reading "Yes to changing the constitution" and "Let's go vote".

Banners floated above the crowd reading "Yes to the Referendum" and "Sassoui" -- a play on the leader's name and the French word for yes.

"Our vote will be yes on October 25," Land Affairs Minister Pierre Mabiala, a member of Sassou Nguesso's PCT party, told the crowd.

Saturday's turnout dwarfed that of an anti-government demo late last month, when several thousand people poured onto the capital's streets to protest against the president's plan to cling to power. They had rallied under the cry "Sassoufit", a pun on the French expression for "that is enough".

- International outcry -

Associations working in neighbourhoods considered loyal to the government rallied residents on Saturday morning, and gave out 2,000 to 5,000 Congolese francs ($3.50-$8.50) to those in need of a so-called incentive, an AFP journalist said.

"They have not achieved what we achieved, despite the fact that they distributed money and gadgets. They even intimidated civil servants into attending the rally," opposition leader and president of Congo's Social Democrats (PSDC) told AFP.

"There weren't any real supporters of the 'yes' vote... We are convinced that the majority will refuse," he added.

The upcoming referendum has attracted international criticism, with Washington conveying its "concern" over Sassou Nguesso's decision to try to change the constitution to stay in office.

"No democracy is well-served when its leader alters its constitution for personal or political gain," a US State Department spokesman said earlier this week.

Sassou Nguesso is among several African leaders who have sparked controversy by seeking to extend their hold on power.

Similar recent moves by his peers have resulted in violence, notably in Burundi where President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial and globally condemned third term sparked an abortive coup and a sweeping crackdown.

And late last year, the iron-fisted ruler of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, was toppled by popular street protests after trying to prolong his 27-year-rule. A coup attempt by one of his closest aides last month lasted only a week.

Sassou Nguesso was president from 1979 to 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.