7 killed in Congo protests over president's refusal to step down: UN peacekeepers

Security forces killed at least seven people in Congo, formerly known as Zaire, on Sunday during protests against President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down from office, United Nations peacekeepers said.

Some fear Joseph Kabila will try to remove term limits that forbid him from running again

A Congolese boy protests against President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down from power in Kinshasa on Sunday. Thousands protested in the country's capital against President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down from power. (John Bompengo/The Associated Press)

Security forces killed at least seven people in Congo, formerly known as Zaire, on Sunday during protests against President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down from office, United Nations peacekeepers said.

Catholic activists had called for protests after Sunday worship, 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 that Kabila will try to remove constitutional term limits that forbid him to run again, as presidents in neighbouring countries have done. That, in turn, has raised fears that Congo will slide back into the kind of civil war that killed millions at the turn of the century.

A member of the Congolese security forces chases people during protests in Kinshasa on Sunday. Seven people have died in protests, according to United Nations peacekeepers. (John Bompengo/The Associated Press)

Florence Marchal, spokesperson for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, said security forces had shot dead at least seven people in Kinshasa. Another person was killed in a protest in the central city of Kananga, she said, although the cause of death was not yet clear.

UN observers documented at least 123 arrests across the country and a number of serious injuries, Marchal added.

In tweets, the UN human rights office in Congo condemned "the use of force against peaceful demonstrators" and the "violent suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms by security forces."

The UN peacekeeping mission, deployed in 1999 to monitor a cease-fire in a long-running war in the east, is the world's largest, with about 18,000 uniformed personnel.

Pierrot Mwanamputu, a national police spokesperson, said one person had died in Kinshasa when security forces were attacked by young men, some of them carrying guns and bladed weapons. He said the other two deaths occurred during an altercation and would be investigated.

At the Paroisse Saint Michel Catholic church in Kinshasa's Bandalungwa district, security forces fired tear gas into the building, creating panic, opposition leader Vital Kamerhe, who was present at the mass, told Reuters.

Security fears

The police had banned the 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 on Saturday ordered all internet and text messaging 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 march.

Congo's President Joseph Kabila addresses the nation at Palais du Peuple in Kinshasa, Congo in April 2017. His delay of an election that as supposed to have happened in 2017 is prompting protests amid fear he will (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

But Tshisekedi, 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 Reuters correspondent saw a few dozen police officers using tear gas and stun grenades against some 300 churchgoers, who waved bibles and sang religious songs as they tried to march.

Some 40 per cent of Congo's population is Roman Catholic and the church, which has mediated in the dispute with Kabila, enjoys some public support, even though its leadership has not formally backed the protests.