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Armed men stage coup attempt in Sierra Leone

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President reportedly flees to Guinea

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (CNN) -- Armed men launched a coup attempt Sunday and said they had taken power in this West African nation. A spokesman, who identified himself as Cpl. Gborie, went on national radio and said that junior army ranks had ousted President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

According to the coup leaders, Kabbah fled to neighboring Guinea.

"We want democracy but not this democracy. Our soldiers have been suffering for far too long", said the spokesman. Gborie also demanded that "all ministers and other politicians should immediately report to military headquarters".

The broadcast came amid reports of heavy shooting in several parts of the capital of Freetown. There were reports of gunbattles and artillery fire, with the attackers apparently meeting some resistance.

4 killed in fighting

Four people were reportedly killed in the fighting. Officials said that casualties were still coming in. Soldiers have declared a round-the-clock curfew.

The coup spokesman claimed that army troops had joined the uprising, but it remained unclear whether the coup leaders represented a faction within the army, or the entire armed forces. It also remained unclear who was actually involved in the battle.

Gborie accused the government of introducing tribalism, and reportedly called for the return to Sierra Leone of Foday Sankoh, a leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, and Capt. Solomon Musa, a former deputy military leader linked to coup allegations in 1993.

Sunday's coup attempt comes after two alleged coup plots against Kabbah were discovered last year.

Hundreds of prisoners freed

During Sunday's gunbattle in the Sierra Leone capital, hundreds of prisoners at the Pademba Road central prison were set free. Witnesses said about 20 heavily armed soldiers broke into the prison and freed more than 600 inmates.

Among those who had been held at the prison were two groups of soldiers charged in alleged coup plots against Kabbah's civilian government in 1996.

The coup spokesman declared Sunday's coup an internal matter, and called on international troops within Sierra Leone to stay out. A substantial number of troops from other West African nations are stationed in Sierra Leone.

Nigerian troops are there as part of a defense pact between the two countries to fend off rebel attacks, particularly in Freetown.

Witnesses said the rebel soldiers clashed with the Nigerian troops around the presidential office complex in the capital. A sergeant claiming to be one of the coup leaders said the army has seized parliament and the government offices, as well as the radio and television stations. He said a new government would be announced at the end of the day.

U.S. embassy hit by grenades

Earlier in the day, troops were reported to be moving around the city in military vehicles, commandeering civilian vehicles and telling civilians to stay indoors.

The capital's Lungi International Airport, which is under the control of troops belonging to the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG, was reported closed to flights in and out of the country.

The United States urged its citizens in Sierra Leone to stay indoors Sunday. White House spokesman Barry Toiv said Washington was prepared to evacuate its citizens if necessary.

The statement came shortly after the U.S. embassy in Freetown was hit twice by rocket-propelled grenades. Apparently no one was hurt.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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