March 16, 2015 / 3:03 PM / 4 years ago

Congo frees U.S. diplomat but detains African democracy activists

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo freed a U.S. diplomat on Monday, a day after he was arrested at a pro-democracy meeting, but the African activists detained with him were kept in custody.

Security forces made around 40 arrests on Sunday when they broke up a news conference in the capital Kinshasa attended by activists, journalists and musicians, including Senegalese and Burkinabe youth leaders visiting Congolese counterparts.

The arrests come at a sensitive time in Congo’s politics. President Joseph Kabila is due to step down next year after completing his second elected term in office but critics fear his camp is looking for ways to allow him to stay in power.

Kevin Sturr, a USAID official with the agency’s democracy and good governance program in Congo, was returned to the U.S. Embassy late Sunday night, Information Minister Lambert Mende said on Monday.

“There are the three Senegalese and the Burkinabe and their Congolese accomplices who continue to be questioned,” Mende added. “Each will have his fate ... Either they will be released or put at the disposition of the public prosecutor.”

The meeting in Kinshasa was being organized by a Congolese movement called Filimbi, which works to encourage youth to engage in politics.

“This event, sponsored in part by the U.S. government, is one of many activities the U.S. government supports that involve youth and civil society as part of our broader commitment to encourage a range of voices to be heard,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. authorities have not been officially informed about why Sturr was detained. “Our ambassador in Kinshasa has raised this at the highest levels with the DRC government,” Psaki said.

Congolese government officials and ruling coalition parties were invited to the event and some attended, it said, describing the youth groups involved as well-regarded and non-partisan.

The foreign activists arrested included Fadel Barro, a member of the Senegalese collective of journalists and hip-hop artists “Y en a Marre”, which helped organize protests against former President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third term in 2012.

A member of Burkina Faso’s grassroots political group “Balai Citoyen”, which played a leading role in protests that toppled that country’s longtime President Blaise Compaore last year, was also detained.

Four foreign journalists also arrested at the event were freed on Sunday.

Mende said on Sunday that Congo’s intelligence services believed the news conference — billed as an exchange between African civil society organizations — was in fact a project organized by “instructors in insurrection”.

At least 40 people were killed in violent protests in January against a revision of Congo’s electoral law that opponents said was meant to delay the presidential poll.

Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Catherine Evans and Christian Plumb

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