Security forces shot dead several protesters who had gathered in the streets of Kinshasa on Tuesday to demand that Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila step down after his mandate expired overnight.
Scattered protests started on Tuesday, and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi called on the Congolese people to peacefully resist Kabila, who has remained in power beyond his constitutional mandate with no election to pick a successor.
Gunfire crackled in several districts of the capital Kinshasa, a city of 12 million, as measures to thwart dissent raised fears of bloody repression.
“On the issue of deaths, it looks bad,” the U.N. human rights director for Congo, Jose Maria Aranaz, told Reuters by telephone. “We are reviewing allegations of up to 20 civilians killed, but it (the information) is pretty solid.”
At least two civilians were killed overnight when soldiers opened fire during clashes in the neighbourhood of Kingabwa, two witnesses said. The government spokesman could not be reached for comment and a police spokesman said he did not have information.
With a ban on demonstrations in force, and a heavy military presence, Kinshasa’s normally busy main boulevards were for the most part deserted as pockets of youths gathered in sidestreets only to be dispersed by the volleys of teargas.
U.N. peacekeepers in armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets, at one point cheered on by a crowd shouting: “Kabila, know that your mandate is finished!”
“I think there will be trouble. The people are saying Kabila has to leave,” said student Joe Doublier, 20, peering nervously out of his house in the opposition stronghold of Limete, where youths burned tyres and pieces of wood in the streets.
“It’s been 16 years and nothing has changed,” he said, referring to the time Kabila has been in power since his father was assassinated in 2001.
In Lubumbashi, a city in the heart of Africa’s richest copper mining area, police and Kabila’s elite military Republican Guard fired live bullets to prevent demonstrations, Gregoire Mulamba, a local human rights activist, told Reuters.
Local activist Jean-Pierre Muteba said there was one death, a 14-year-old boy shot by police. A police spokesman said he did not have enough information to comment.
The mayor of Lubumbashi, Jean Oscar Sanguza, told Reuters security forces had intervened to stop looters, and denied reports of deaths in the confrontations.
In a video posted on YouTube, opposition leader Tshisekedi said: “I launch a solemn appeal to the Congolese people to not recognise the … illegal and illegitimate authority of Joseph Kabila and to peacefully resist (his) coup d’etat,”
Authorities have blocked most social media. Such restrictive measures have raised fears of more violence in a nation that has never had a peaceful transfer of power and has suffered near-constant war and instability in the two decades since the fall of kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko.
Western powers are nervous of a repeat of the conflicts between 1996 to 2003 that killed millions, drew in half a dozen neighbouring armies and saw rebel fighters rape women en masse.
The United States and European Union have called for Kabila to respect the constitution. Congo’s former colonial master Belgium said on Tuesday it would “re-examine” relations with Kabila after he failed to step down.
France urged the European Union re-examine its links with Congo because of the “seriousness of the situation”.
Kabila has rarely spoken about the issue in public, but his allies say the election was delayed because of logistical and financial problems. The constitutional court has ruled that Kabila can stay on until the election takes place, and some opposition leaders have agreed to this.
In what appeared to be an attempt at soothing opposition grievances, Kabila’s administration announced on state TV an expansion of the government by about 20 ministerial posts to more than 65, many of them reserved for opposition members.
But many opponents, especially in Kinshasa, are not buying it. Demonstrators in the districts of Kalamu, Matete and Lingwala as well as at Kinshasa University blew whistles around midnight to signal to Kabila that it was time to leave.
Reuters witnesses saw more than a dozen young men who had been arrested seated in the back of a military truck near the university.
Scores of protesters have been arrested in the past 24 hours, mostly in the eastern city of Goma, according to human rights groups.