KINSHASA (Reuters) – Security forces in Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa shot dead a civil society activist and wounded several other people during church-led demonstrations against President Joseph Kabila on Sunday, witnesses said.
Catholic and evangelical churchgoers across Congo had been meant to take to the streets following Sunday services but were met with police and soldiers deployed to stop them.
Rights groups said they had received reports of arrests and brutality by security forces across the country, as well as more deaths.
In power since 2001, Kabila struck a deal with the main opposition bloc to stay on after his elected mandate expired in December 2016, but authorities missed a deadline to hold elections last year as required under the agreement.
The vote is now scheduled for this December, though election officials have hinted that polls may not be possible even then due to financial and logistical constraints.
Church groups have become the main opposing force to Kabila as political opposition parties have been hobbled by infighting or seen their leaders forced into exile.
“Our people no longer believe in the political will of our current leaders to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” one of the main organising groups, the Lay Coordination Committee (CLC), said in a statement before the march.
The organisers are demanding that authorities promptly organise the presidential election and that Kabila commit to not trying to change the constitution to remove term limits that forbid him from standing for re-election.
However, armed security forces surrounded Kinshasa’s main churches and blocked roads, preventing most demonstrations from starting and in some cases using teargas and gunfire to disperse them.
Witnesses who brought the body of the slain man to Kinshasa’s St. Joseph Hospital said he had been shot by police outside a church in the Lemba neighbourhood.
Campaign organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified him as Rossy Mukendi, 36, an assistant university professor who set up a citizens action group called Collectif 2016.
Policemen react after a protester threw a stone from Notre Dame Cathedral compound in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Leonnie Kandolo, a CLC spokeswoman, said security forces had also shot dead two people in the northwestern city of Mbandaka and one in Kisangani, which sits along the Congo River.
Those numbers could not be immediately confirmed. Congolese human rights group ACAJ confirmed Mukendi’s death and said it was investigating reports of others.
Its president, Georges Kapiamba, said 15 people had been injured in violence in Kinshasa, including six with gunshot wounds, and that about 50 protesters had been arrested.
Kapiamba said five protesters had been injured in Kisangani and at least three arrested in the southeastern mining hub of Lubumbashi.
Several witnesses in Kisangani reported that police had used teargas and gunfire to disperse marchers.
“I arrived back home without my family … Everyone fled in a different direction,” said one Kisangani resident, who was forced to flee after church services there and asked not to be identified.
As with previous protest marches, internet, mobile data and phone messaging were cut across Congo early on Sunday.
Kinshasa police commissioner General Sylvano Kasongo would not comment on reports that security forces had fired on protesters. The telephone of the spokesman for the national police appeared to be turned off on Sunday.
During a review of police on Saturday, Kasongo had announced a goal of “zero deaths” during the protests.
Security forces killed about a dozen civilians during two previous marches organised by Catholic activists since December.
The crackdowns have drawn international condemnation and stoked fears Congo could be sliding back towards the kind of war in which millions died at the turn of the century.
A heavy security presence was visible on the streets of Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo, and violence was reported in the city of Bandundu, in the west.
Additional reporting by Eric Kapita and Amedee Mwarabu in Kinshasa and Fiston Mahamba in Goma; Writing by Joe Bavier and Aaron Ross; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Dale Hudson
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