Tensions are rising in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the government cracks down on demonstrations against President Joseph Kabila extending his term past his constitutional two-term limit.
Human Rights Watch says it documented at least 26 deaths during protests Tuesday in multiple cities and called the country a “powder keg.” It said it is still verifying the number of dead.
Kabila’s term expired on Monday, but he has delayed elections until April 2018. Protesters have been rallying since Kabila indicated that he would stay in office. As his mandate expired on Monday evening, reports indicate that demonstrators voiced their opposition by blowing whistles and banging pots and pans.
“It is unfortunate that DRC security forces responded to this expression of democratic sentiment with tear gas, arrests, and warning shots,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
In Kinshasa and the southern city of Lubumbashi, Human Rights Watch said that “military and police forces were heavily deployed and fired gunshots in some neighborhoods to disperse the whistling protesters.” It added that security forces carried out door-to-door searches and erected checkpoints to question people about their links to the opposition.
The U.N. said Tuesday that it has “documented 113 arrests in the country, including opposition leaders and sympathizers, civil society activists and human rights defenders, media professionals and other individuals” in the previous three days.
The government says nine people were killed in Kinshasa, including one police officer, according to The Associated Press.
“The opposition wanted to demonstrate to take power by force. What kind of state would not defend itself against such behavior?” Jean-Pierre Kambila, Kabila’s Cabinet director, told the wire service. “We had to deter people from demonstrating, otherwise there would have been deaths like in September.”
Talks about a possible timeline for elections were set to resume Wednesday between the government and opposition groups, brokered by Catholic bishops, as NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Dakar, Senegal. She adds that the elections were delayed after a deal between the president and a minor opposition coalition; the main opposition coalition was opposed to the plan.
Now, Ofeibea adds, the “main opposition leader has called for peaceful resistance to defy Kabila and force him to go.” Etienne Tshisekedi made the appeal in a video message posted on YouTube.
Before Monday’s protests, the government ordered telecom companies to block social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube and LinkedIn, as we reported. A Reuters reporter said on Wednesday evening that social media sites were still blocked in Kinshasa.