KINSHASA (Reuters) - Republic of Congo has expelled more than 50,000 citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past month, authorities in Kinshasa said on Thursday, a move rare on this scale in the relations between the two neighbours.
Officials in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, said the operation is aimed at ending a crime wave linked to foreigners, and that all those living in the country illegally, not just those from the DRC, were being targeted.
The Kinshasa government has expressed concern about the way in which the operation was being carried out but said it is seeking to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels.
"As of yesterday, we had counted 52,226 people expelled from Brazzaville," Andre Kimbuta Yango, the governor of Kinshasa, told Reuters. The operation, dubbed the "Slap that hurts" in the local language, Lingala, began on April 3.
There are strong ethnic and commercial ties between the capitals of the two countries, which are separated by the Congo River. While there are sporadic political tensions, expulsions on this scale are rare.
Those who were forced to leave Brazzaville and did not have places to sleep in Kinshasa are being put up in an open air stadium.
"I have lived in Brazzaville since 2010 and have all my papers in order. But the police ripped them up, accusing me of being a member of the gangs," said one expelled woman who did not want to give her name.
Hugues Ngoulondele, mayor of Brazzaville, said some of the police in the Republic of Congo had been punished for abuses but the operation was part of a security crackdown.
"For some time, we have noticed an increase in violent criminality in Brazzaville that has been blamed on foreigners, including those from Cameroon, DRC and Chad, who are here illegally," he said.
Communities on both sides of the river speak the same language and boats ferry goods and people between the two cities. There is a longstanding plan to build a bridge across the Congo River to link the two cities.
However, tensions have flared in the past, often over one side hosting exiles from the other.
Tunda Ya Kasende, DRC's deputy foreign minister, said Kinshasa was worried by some of the methods being used by authorities across the river. He did not specify the methods.
"Out aim is to protect the population. The diplomatic channels are open," he said.
(Reporting by Bienvenu-Marie Bakumanya; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)