KINSHASA, (Reuters) – At least 44 people – including 37 demonstrators and six police officers – have been killed in protests over Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s perceived bid to extend his rule, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said yesterday.
The unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo started on Monday after its election commission decided to try to postpone the next presidential vote, due in November.
Kabila’s opponents say the proposed delay is a manoeuvre to keep him in power although ruling party politicians deny this. Kabila is barred constitutionally from running for a third term and his allies say he will respect the constitution.
With the disturbances forcing schools to close and halting public transport in the sprawling riverside capital Kinshasa, the United Nations expressed fears the situation could worsen.
The United States said Kabila’s government should have taken steps to defuse the violence and that it was prepared to impose sanctions targeting individuals involved in abuses.
French President Francoise Hollande blamed Congo authorities and urged them to respect the constitution and hold elections this year.
Adding to the mix of disapproval, Congo’s influential Roman Catholic Church suspended its participation in talks over the timetable for the next elections and stressed that Kabila should not be a candidate when they are held.
Several people were killed overnight when security forces burned down the headquarters of the main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), and attacked buildings of other opposition parties, according to Ida Sawyer, an Africa researcher for New York-based HRW.
Twenty people were killed in clashes on Monday and another 17 on Tuesday – “most (of them) when security forces fired on crowds of protesters”, Sawyer said.
“We’ve also received credible reports that protesters have killed at least six police officers and a (ruling party) PPRD supporter and they have also burned and looted several shops and police stations.”
Interior ministry spokesman Claude Pero Luwara said the death toll stood at 17 and that Human Rights Watch’s statement was a “typical” exaggeration by the group. The ministry had earlier said three of those killed were policemen.
The early hours fire was a criminal act, said opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, a UDPS official and son of veteran opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi, who lost to Kabila in a 2011 presidential run-off.
“We have on our hands seven dead and two people who were amputated: one at the arm and another at the leg, in the fire at our headquarters in Limete. There are also multiple people wounded at the hospital,” Felix Tshisekedi told Reuters.
“We won’t live with this barbarity. The people are angry.”
Government spokesman Lambert Mende condemned the attack on the UDPS premises but denied that security forces were involved.