UNITED NATIONS – Police fired shots and teargas to break up a crowd before a political rally by opposition leader and potential presidential candidate Moise Katumbi in Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, an official and the opposition said.
Katumbi said in a statement that police had arrested people close to him, and that others had been injured in the incident in the city of Lubumbashi.
But government spokesman Lambert Mende said police intervened to disperse people who were blocking roads, preventing normal traffic. No rally had been scheduled, he said.
Political tension is high in Congo, where opponents of President Joseph Kabila say he is trying to cling to power beyond the end of his mandate in 2016. More than 40 people were killed in violent protests over the issue in January 2015.
Since then, authorities have arrested dozens of critics of Kabila on what the United Nations and human rights groups say are trumped up charges.
Katumbi said the confrontation with police took place as he was about to speak at a rally. It was the second time opposition supporters had been tear-gassed in a week.
“My message to the authorities is clear: nothing can weaken our peaceful combat for democracy,” Katumbi said. “Repression, intimidation and relentless only reinforce our actions.”
Mende said everyone who had been arrested had been released except four of Katumbi’s bodyguards who had not been authorised to work in Congo.
“The shots were used to disperse the crowd,” Mende said.
Opposition parties endorsed Katumbi last month as their candidate for a presidential vote set for November although the businessman has yet to say he will run.
Lubumbashi is the largest city of copper-rich Katanga, which is Kabila’s home region, but he has faced vigorous opposition there and several prominent supporters have defected from his ruling coalition over the last 18 months.
KERRY CALLS FOR TIMELY ELECTION IN MEETING
US Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the need for timely and credible elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a recent meeting with Kabila, the State Department said on Monday amid concerns by opposition groups that Kabila may be seeking to delay elections.
Kerry and Kabila held talks on the sidelines of the signing of a global climate pact at the United Nations on Friday.
Congolese opposition groups have accused Kabila, who won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011, of manoeuvring to stand for a third term, which is barred by the constitution. Kabila has not commented on his future.
“The Secretary did emphasise that the US stands ready to be a partner to all of those who are committed to timely, credible elections as called for by the DRC’s constitution,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told a press briefing.
The Congolese government has suggested that logistical and budgetary constraints could force it to postpone the poll, a move some of Kabila’s opponents say is a deliberate tactic by the president to cling to power.
“The Secretary stressed that a peaceful transition in the DRC will allow President Kabila to cement his legacy,” Kirby added.
During their meeting, Kerry also emphasised that citizens should be allowed to speak freely without intimidation.
Police, using tear gas, dispersed hundreds of anti-government protesters in southeastern DRC on 20 April. Since then authorities have arrested dozens of critics of Kabila in what the UN and human rights groups said were trumped up charges.