(Bloomberg) -- At least six people died when security forces clashed with anti-government protesters in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital on Sunday, the United Nations said.
Police and soldiers fired teargas and live rounds to disperse thousands of Catholic Church worshipers as they left Sunday morning services in Kinshasa and attempted to march to protest President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down. Similar scenes played out at parishes in several other Congolese cities.
Local authorities had refused to authorize the demonstrations, while organizers said they didn’t require permission. On Jan. 20, numerous roadblocks manned by the police and the military were set up as both text messaging and internet services were cut. There was a heavy security presence outside Catholic churches on Sunday morning.
UN Mission in Congo spokeswoman Florence Marchal said at least six civilians were killed in Kinshasa. A further 57 people were injured nationwide, including 20 in Kinshasa, and 111 were arrested throughout Congo, she said. Bloomberg saw two priests and several others being beaten and then detained in the Kinshasa district of Bandalungwa.
Police spokesman Colonel Pierrot Mwanamputu said on state television on Sunday night that police dispersed “delinquents” and “thugs” to protect the population. He said two civilians were shot dead in Kinshasa and nine police officers were injured, two seriously.
Similar clashes three weeks ago left at least 12 people dead according to the Lay Coordination Committee, a group of Catholic activists, which called a demonstration on New Year’s Eve to demand Kabila’s departure. Organizers said security forces fired teargas into churches and live rounds at worshipers preparing to march.
Kabila, who’s led Africa’s biggest copper producer since 2001, was supposed to step down at the end of his second term in December 2016 after an election to find his successor. That vote was delayed and Kabila remained in office, sparking protests in which dozens of people were killed by security forces. The central African nation, which gained independence from Belgium almost six decades ago, has never had a peaceful transfer of power.
In November, the electoral commission published a new schedule fixing presidential and parliamentary polls for Dec. 23, 2018, but the main opposition groups, which back the marches, have rejected the calendar. They insist Kabila leave power to make way for a transition period under an interim head of state.
While not involved in organizing the marches, the leadership of the Catholic Church has adopted an increasingly assertive tone against the government. One of the few institutions to have a presence and enjoy credibility across the vast country, the church brokered an agreement between Kabila’s political coalition and opposition parties on New Year’s Eve 2016. The deal permitted the president to remain in power an extra year as long as his supporters didn’t try to change the constitution and elections were held during 2017.
That agreement was “violated” by Kabila’s government, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, told reporters Jan. 2. At the same news conference, he condemned the “barbarism” deployed by security forces on Dec. 31.
The victims “died by the deathly will of those who are supposed to ensure safety,” said Donatien Baduidinsoni, Monsengwo’s deputy, at a commemorative mass on Jan. 12. Police fired teargas at the crowds after the service finished.
Congolese authorities have reacted angrily to the Catholic Church’s renewed assertiveness. Government spokesman Lambert Mende said Jan. 3 that Monsengwo had shown “an attitude of contempt and rejection” and accused the church of having been “a zealous auxiliary to Belgian colonization.”
A leader of Congo’s Protestant churches, which are more closely allied to Kabila than the Catholic clergy, has also criticized the government. At a service to mark the 17th anniversary of the assassination of Laurent-Desire Kabila, the current president’s father who led Congo from 1997 to 2001, Pastor Francois-David Ekofo addressed a congregation containing members of the Kabila family, ministers and ruling party officials.
“The state doesn’t really exist,” Ekofo said. “We must bequeath to our children a state where the state is real and everybody is equal before the law.”
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