Security forces fired bullets and tear gas Monday at demonstrators burning tires in Congo’s capital, killing at least three people among thousands protesting a government decision to delay national elections, a Congolese human rights group said.
Residents and students set tires ablaze in several poor neighborhoods near Kinshasa’s airport, where the protests appeared to be centered, as police and soldiers pushed them back, residents said. Sporadic gunshots were also heard in other parts of the capital.
The violence lasted several hours. The city was later reported quiet but tense.
The Kinshasa-based African Association for the Defense of Human Rights said that three people died and that eight others were wounded.
An official at Kinshasa General Hospital said one body was taken there, along with two wounded people.
Residents cower in homes
“The people are saying we need elections,” said Adrian Bimbata, a resident in the area who was contacted by telephone. “They don’t want elections to be delayed, and the economy is bad, and every day our money becomes more worthless. The people are protesting these things.”
Bimbata said he and his neighbors were afraid to leave their houses because of the threat of violence.
On Friday, Apolinaire Malumalu, chief of the independent electoral commission, said landmark nationwide elections scheduled for June might be delayed several months, until October or November.
The delay is in line with a peace accord signed by the nation’s former warring factions in 2002, as well as the constitution, which grants the government authority to delay the elections twice by six months.
In a New Year’s Eve address, President Joseph Kabila said he was determined to hold the vote this year.
Congo’s government spokesman, Henri Mova Sakanyi, played down the protests and said they were organized by loyalists of Etienne Tshisekedi, a popular veteran opposition leader who has vocally protested the election delay.
“It’s not a big deal,” Sakanyi said. “These people are already under control.”
U.N. steps up security
Eliane Nabaa, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Congo, said the government fired tear gas into crowds near the airport who were threatening to march toward downtown.
She said the United Nations was tightening security around all its Kinshasa offices and in areas where employees live.
The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa issued a statement warning that an election delay “could incite demonstrations elsewhere in the country in the coming days.”
At an afternoon news conference, Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of four vice presidents in the transitional government, said he was incensed by the delay and by the way police treated protesters.
He contended that his party — the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, a former Ugandan-backed rebel group — had been left out of election planning and threatened to withdraw from the transitional government.
The vast central African country’s five-year war officially ended in 2002, but persistent ethnic fighting and revolts have continued in the east and tensions with neighboring Rwanda — which has twice intervened in Congo — have remained high.