KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Security forces in Congo have killed at least 26 demonstrators and arrested scores more amid protests against President Joseph Kabila’s hold on power, Human Rights Watch said, as talks on the political crisis caused by delayed elections were resuming Wednesday.
A heavy military and police presence remained in the capital, Kinshasa, and across the country. The remains of barricades littered the streets after protesters burned the headquarters of the ruling party on Tuesday, the first day after Kabila’s mandate expired.
Reports of the death toll varied. On Wednesday, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo said it had documented 19 people shot to death, 45 wounded and a “very high number” of arrests in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Matadi and Goma. The U.N. has recorded 113 arrests across the country since Friday, including opposition members and activists.
Congo’s government said nine people had been killed in the capital: a police officer, two women hit by stray bullets and six men killed in looting. “The opposition wanted to demonstrate to take power by force. What kind of state would not defend itself against such behavior?” said Jean-Pierre Kambila, Kabila’s Cabinet director. “We had to deter people from demonstrating, otherwise there would have been deaths like in September.”
Dozens were killed in the September protests when the electoral commission failed to schedule the presidential election. Once set for November, it has now been indefinitely delayed. The ruling party says it won’t be held until 2018.
Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father’s assassination, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, but a court has ruled that he can remain in power until the new elections. Political talks between the ruling party and opposition, which stalled over the weekend, were resuming Wednesday with mediators from the Catholic church. The main opposition coalition confirmed it would participate. Top issues include scheduling the elections and releasing political prisoners.
The political impasse has fueled fears of widespread unrest in this vast Central African nation that has trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources but remains one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries.
On Wednesday, 18 activists and a journalist in the eastern city of Goma gathered for a peaceful sit-in in front of the governor’s office, holding signs reading “No one is above the law, bye bye Kabila” and “Protecting our constitution is not a crime.” They were quickly arrested, residents said.
The head of the U.N. mission in Congo called on local authorities to end politically motivated detentions. “I am gravely concerned by the arrests of those who seek to express their political views,” said Maman S. Sidikou, who asked that the U.N. be granted full access to detention centers.
The United States said it was “greatly disappointed by President Kabila’s failure to organize elections and to state publicly that he will not run again.” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. condemned the latest violence and urged all sides to participate in Wednesday’s talks “fully and in good faith.”