KINSHASA (Reuters) - At least three people were injured in Congo’s capital on Tuesday when a protest against perceived attempts by President Joseph Kabila to extend his mandate turned violent, the government said.
Unidentified men with wooden batons attacked protesters shortly after opposition leaders began addressing an open-air meeting at a soccer field in Kinshasa at about 1430 local time, a Reuters reporter said.
The meeting of more than 1,000 people quickly descended into chaos as some protesters began striking the attackers with chairs while dozens of others, some with injuries and blood-stained clothes, ran to avoid being hit. Residents said police back-up arrived later and restored calm.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the attack was likely perpetrated by supporters of Kabila angered by the “injurious rhetoric” of the opposition leaders on stage against the president. He condemned both the attack and the insults.
Opposition leader Emery Okundji from the Reformist Forces for Union and Solidarity (FONUS), said he saw the corpses of two attackers, whom he said were soldiers in civilian dress.
Other witnesses said they saw at least one apparently lifeless body, although they could not say for sure whether the person was dead.
“I denounce this with force because what we did was legal and we informed the authorities in accordance with the law,” said Vital Kamerhe, president of the opposition Union for the Congolese Nation party.
The crowd in the N’djili commune included representatives of several major opposition parties gathering to protest what they say is an attempt by Kabila to cling to power beyond the end of his second and final elected term next December.
The opposition says the election commission has drawn up a packed calendar of more than a dozen local, provincial and national votes over the next 14 months to delay the presidential election. They say the government is underfunding these elections as a way to force them to be delayed.
The constitutional court ordered the election commission to revisit the calendar last week, saying the budgetary and political constraints have made it untenable.
The 44-year-old president took power in 2001 when his father was assassinated and won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011.
The protest, authorized by Kinshasa governor Andre Kimbuta, coincides with the reopening of parliament and is the first major anti-government rally since at least 40 people were killed in protests in Kinshasa and other cities in January.
Protesters waved the flags of opposition parties and banners reading “Respect for the constitution is not negotiable” and “Mr Kabila’s mandate ends on December 19, 2016”.
So far, Kabila has refused to comment publicly on his political future, though a spokesman has said that he intends to respect the constitution.
The election in Congo is being closely watched as Kabila is one of several long-standing African leaders approaching the end of their term over the next two years amid calls for constitutional change.
Writing by Daniel Flynn and Emma Farge; Editing by Hugh Lawson