BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Turnout in a referendum in Congo on Sunday was reduced to a trickle in the capital after the opposition asked voters to boycott the poll on whether the president can legally stand for a third consecutive term in an election due next year.
President Denis Sassou Nguesso, 71, is the latest long-serving African president to try to prolong his grip on power by changing the constitution. Several other such efforts have provoked violence, and four died in Congo Republic last week when security forces opened fire on protesters.
In some parts of the capital, the only voters were members of the security forces, witnesses said. There was no information on turnout in other parts of the country. Polling booths closed at 6 p.m. (12:00 p.m. ET) and vote counting began.
Sassou Nguesso appeared confident of victory when he voted and said he regretted that the opposition had called for a boycott.
"The Congolese are a free and sovereign people .... My side will win because I know that our people love peace," he said.
Dozens of residents moved from southern neighborhoods of Brazzaville to other areas on Saturday to avoid possible conflict, although several said they were worried they would not be able to vote as a result.
Others complained they had not received voter cards. Some people held up signs with the word "No" in protest at the vote. Analysts have warned that further violence is possible and that a low turnout could undermine the vote's credibility.
"From what we have seen in Brazzaville and the interior of the country people haven't voted .... This is a defeat for the government," said opposition leader Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, secretary of Pan-African Union for Social Democracy party.
"He (Sassou Nguesso) will invent figures to change the constitution. But that constitution won't have the support of the population," he told Reuters.
Sassou Nguesso has ruled the oil-producing country for 31 of the past 36 years and is expected to stand if permitted. He won disputed elections in 2002 and 2009, and term limits as well as his age bar him from running again as the constitution stands.
Last October, Burkina Faso's leader of 27 years was toppled by protests, and the president of Burundi won a third term in July amid violent protests. Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also sought constitutional change.
Western governments are torn between endorsing veteran leaders or pressing for term limits. Congo is a former French colony and President Francois Hollande said last week that Sassou Nguesso had the right to consult his people.
Senegal's President Macky Sall endorsed Congo's right to hold a referendum. "One must allow a sovereign people to pronounce, to debate and to organize their democracy," he told the iTele station.
Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Richard Balmforth