Congolese security forces shot dead two men on Sunday during protests against President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down from office, Human Rights Watch said.
Catholic activists had called for protests after Sunday mass, one year after Kabila committed to holding an election to choose his successor by the end of 2017 – an election that has now been delayed until December 2018.
The delay has fuelled suspicions Kabila will try to remove constitutional term limits that forbid him from running again . That in turn has raised fears the country will slide back into the kind of civil war that killed millions at the turn of the century.
The two men were killed outside St. Alphonse church in the Matete district of Kinshasa, the capital, according to Ida Sawyer, HRW’s Central Africa director.
Police spokesman Pierrot Mwanamputu denied security forces had used live fire during the protests. “We are operating in the daytime. Everyone is watching us. It’s not the night,” he said.
But a Reuters witness saw two people at a local hospital who had been slightly injured by gunshots in the arm and the leg as they left the St. Joseph church in the Matonge district.
About 50 people were arrested in Kinshasa and at least seven seriously wounded by gunfire, Georges Kapiamba, a human rights activist, said. Another 25 were arrested and three more seriously injured in the southeastern town of Kamina, he said.
Mwanamputu confirmed the police had arrested protesters who had barricaded roads and set tires alight but did not know how many.
At the Paroisse Saint Michel in Kinshasa’s Bandalungwa district, security forces fired teargas into the church, creating panic, opposition leader Vital Kamerhe, who was present at the mass, told Reuters.
The police have banned demonstrations and said that all gatherings of more than five people would be dispersed to ensure public order. Across Kinshasa, police and soldiers searched vehicles and checked passengers’ identifications.
Authorities also on Saturday ordered all internet and SMS services cut until further notice.
At the Notre Dame du Congo cathedral in Kinshasa’s Lingwala district, where opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi was attending mass, dozens of police and soldiers blocked the path of more than 100 opposition supporters as they prepared to try to march.
Tshisekedi, however, who had backed the activists’ call to march, left the church in a vehicle, spurring angry shouts from the crowd, which said he was abandoning them.
At another church in the working-class district of Barumbu, a few dozen police officers used teargas and stun grenades against some 300 churchgoers, who waved bibles and sang religious songs as they tried to march, a Reuters witness said.
Some 40 percent of Congo‘s population is Roman Catholic and the Church enjoys rare credibility with the public, even though its leadership has not formally backed the protests.