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KINSHASA (Reuters) - Police in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters who accused security forces of vandalizing posters of opposition leaders, human rights activists 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. Violent protests over the issue in January 2015 killed more than 40 people.
Since then, authorities have arrested dozens of critics of Kabila on what the United Nations and human rights groups say are trumped up charges. Opposition leaders decided not to follow through on plans for a big march in February, in part to avoid possible further violence.
More than 500 supporters of the opposition UNAFEC party clashed with police in the Kenya neighborhood of Lubumbashi, Timothee Mbuya, the president of a local human rights organization called Justicia, told Reuters.
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.
Mbuya said the protests were provoked by police officers who on Tuesday night tore down banners bearing the likenesses of former provincial governor Moise Katumbi and UNAFEC president Gabriel Kyungu wa Kumwanza, two former allies of Kabila, at UNAFEC's local headquarters.
UNAFEC and allied opposition parties endorsed Katumbi last month as their candidate for a presidential vote set for November. Katumbi has yet to say he will run.
"The police came to disperse the people with tear gas and went after all the young people who were wearing T-shirts of (Katumbi's soccer club)," Mbuya said, adding that police made arrests.
Gregoire Mulamba, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (CDH) in Lubumbashi, and a witness, confirmed Mbuya's version of events.
A police spokesman said the police had dispersed UNAFEC supporters with tear gas when they started throwing rocks at cars and pedestrians. He added that there was no evidence that police officers had pulled down the banners.
Kabila, who won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011, is barred by the constitution from standing for a third term but critics accuse him of trying to delay the vote to prolong his time in office.
He has not commented on his future but instead has called for national talks to resolve what he says are budgetary and logistical obstacles to holding elections.
Additional reporting by Kenny Katombe; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Raissa Kasolowsky