Congolese security forces shot dead at least six people and wounded dozens more as they fired tear gas to disperse a protest against President Joseph Kabila organized by the Catholic Church on Sunday, a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country said.
Kabila's refusal to step down at the end of his mandate in December 2016 has triggered a series of street protests in which scores have been killed in Kinshasa. It has also emboldened armed rebel groups in different parts of the country.
A Reuters witness saw police and paramilitary troops fire volleys of tear gas and shoot into the air on Sunday outside the Notre Dame cathedral in the capital Kinshasa.
Florence Marchal, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission (MONUSCO), also said 57 people were wounded and dozens of arrests had been made across the country. As well as Kinshasa, protests erupted in the central Congolese diamond-mining town of Mbuji-Mayi, in the eastern cities of Goma, Lubumbashi and several other places.
A police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The instability has stoked fears that the vast, mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo could slide back into the wars that killed millions in the 1990s, mostly from hunger and disease.
"I marched today for a simple reason: I want to bring up my children in a country that respects human rights," protester Pascal Kabeya, a 40-year-old market trader, told Reuters where a few hundred had gathered in a suburb of Kinshasa.
"Kabila has done his two terms. He should leave now and give a chance to someone else".
'We will use force'
The chief of police for Kinshasa city, General Sylvano Kasongo Kitenge, had warned in a statement overnight that the protest was banned and that "no attempt to disturb public order will be tolerated anywhere in Kinshasa."
Kasongo, surrounded by several armed police, visited the road leading to Notre Dame where a protest was happening.
Mass is over, the priests should now go home, and everybody else should go home. If you refuse, we will use force and shoot tear gas, let that be very clear.
The violence echoed that of New Year's Eve, when Congolese forces killed at least seven people in the capital during a protest by Catholic activists..
Under a deal mediated by the church between Kabila and his opponents, the president was to step down at the end of last year, paving the way for an election early this year. But he reneged on the deal and the poll has been repeatedly delayed -- it is currently loosely scheduled for the end of 2018.
Diplomats from the United States, British and Swiss embassies had all put out statements encouraging the Congolese to march to pressure Kabila to respect the deal.
"We applaud Congolese citizens exercising their constitutional right to assemble peacefully in support of the full implementation of the (agreement)," the U.S. and British embassies said in a joint statement. "Those who do not protect these rights must be held accountable."
Congo's influential Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a harness for opposition to Kabila, while his political opposition remains feeble and fragmented.
"I ask the authorities ... and all in this beloved country to put their best effort toward avoiding ... violence," Pope Francis said of Congo's crisis while in Peru on Sunday.
Kabila, who has been president since his father was killed in office in 2001, blames the electoral delays on the logistics of voter registration.
Writing by Tim Cocks, additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer in Lima; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Elaine Hardcastle