Gunfire, tear gas in protests against possible Congo election delay

  • World
  • Monday, 19 Jan 2015

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Security forces fired live rounds and tear gas in clashes with rock-throwing protesters in Democratic Republic of Congo's capital on Monday as opposition parties tried to block a change in the law that may delay elections due in 2016.

Smoke billowed in the air as tyres burned in the streets of Kinshasa, where police in riot gear and armed presidential guards were deployed.

Two military helicopters flew overhead. Witnesses said police fire shots in some neighbourhoods, though the government denied this. Protests also erupted in Goma, the main city in eastern Congo.

The demonstrations are against a revised election law that requires a national census be carried out before elections, a move that could delay the polls by years and allow President Joseph Kabila to put off standing down.

The bill has been approved by the lower house of parliament and was being examined by the senate on Monday.

"We demand that Kabila leaves," said protester Jean-Paul Beya. "We think the people are getting there little by little and we will replicate Burkina," he said, referring to Burkina Faso, where Blaise Compaore was forced to quit as president last October by rallies against a bid to stay in power.

Opposition parties said two of their leaders who called on followers to occupy parliament were prevented from leaving the offices of the UNC party by security forces.

Critics call the reform a "constitutional coup" but the government says the census is a necessary part of the electoral process in the vast country of 65 million people, which has reserves of copper, gold, diamonds coveted by foreign interests.

A witness in Matonge, a neighbourhood near parliament, said he saw police fire live rounds in the air in a bid to disperse people. Crowds later looted Chinese-owned shops in the area.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende said protests had failed as senators examined the law on Monday. He denied police had used live rounds and said opposition leaders who had called for looting would be held accountable.

"There will be no more impunity in this country," he said.

A Reuters reporter saw one person who had been shot in the shoulder being treated in Kinshasa's main hospital.

Kabila's rivals have so far struggled to mobilise large groups, partly because of fears of heavy-handed police tactics. Before Monday's march, opposition leaders called on supporters to fight back against police.

Police fired tear gas on a crowd of more than 1,000 people in the eastern city of Goma on Monday. A Reuters reporter saw at least two people with bullet wounds.

(Additional by Kenny Katombe in Goma, David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by David Lewis and Emma Farge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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