Congo police made a pre-dawn raid on a separatist group in Kinshasa on Tuesday, killing four people but failing to arrest their leader, a self-styled religious prophet, witnesses and group members said.
Dozens of armed police stormed the home of Ne Muanda Nsemi, leader of Bundu dia Kongo (BDK), a religious cult that seeks to revive the pre-colonial Kongo kingdom that flourished for centuries around the mouth of the Congo river.
Police have clashed with BDK members several times in the past few weeks in their western heartland of Kongo Central province, but the spread of violence to the capital, hundreds of kilometres (miles) away, is a serious escalation.
It also adds to wider tensions across Congo since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down after his mandate expired in December, raising fears of a slide back into civil war.
“We are looking for (Muanda Nsemi). We are going to find him,” said Communications Minister Lambert Mende, without saying what he was accused of. He denied police had fired live ammunition.
Spokesman Pierre Mwanamputu said Muanda Nsemi’s supporters had participated in an “armed insurrectional movement” in Kinshasa on Monday.
Members of the BDK said the four fatalities were due to police preventing the wounded getting swift medical attention.
“There are four dead because they were not taken care of,” said Basangana Ndunga, president of BDK’s political wing. He said two other members had been killed in separate clashes in Kinshasa.
Residents think the raid may have been provoked by a video circulating on social media in which Muanda Nsemi appears to threaten Kabila.
However, it was unclear whether the BDK supporters in Kinshasa, who could be seen on the roofs of several buildings in their distinctive white robes and red head-dress, were armed.
Security forces killed more than 300 BDK members and bystanders in crackdowns on sometimes violent protests in 2007 and 2008, dumping their bodies in the Congo river or mass graves, rights groups say.
Separately, the United Nations said on Tuesday that soldiers targeting the Kamwina Nsapu militia group had killed at least 101 people between Feb 9 and Feb 13 in central Congo