Violence erupts at opposition protests in DRC

Kinshasa - Congolese security forces fired tear gas and charged at several thousand stone-throwing protesters in the capital Kinshasa Thursday as nationwide rallies against veteran President Joseph Kabila turned violent.

Large numbers of riot police were deployed across the Democratic Republic of Congo for the protests called by three opposition groups in defiance of government bans.

The violence erupted in the north of Kinshasa, where about 5 000 demonstrators were on the streets to oppose moves to keep Kabila in power beyond the expiry of his second term in December.

Police said although the Kinshasa demonstration had permission from the authorities, the crowds had deviated from an agreed route.

"In these cases we don't negotiate, we disperse," national police spokesperson colonel Pierre Rombaut Mwanamputu told AFP.

Police fired tear gas against stone-throwing protesters and then charged them to break up the demonstration, AFP journalists said.

Tensions have been soaring in the country where Kabila, in power since his father's assassination in 2001, is widely thought to be preparing to remain in office beyond the two terms allowed under the constitution.

Opposition groups are also angry that Kabila's powerful rival, football magnate Moise Katumbi, was all but pushed into exile in South Africa last Friday.

In Lubumbashi, dozens of riot police were also standing guard in the city centre where many shops remained shuttered and the number of vehicles on the roads was far lower than usual, according to an AFP team.

UN appeals for restraint

The opposition called for demonstrations after the Constitutional Court ruled earlier this month that Kabila, 44, could remain in a caretaker capacity beyond the expiry of his second term, sparking widespread outrage.

Katumbi - who announced this month his plans to run for the presidency - has been accused of hiring foreign mercenaries as part of an alleged plot to overthrow Kabila.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on Wednesday for restraint by all sides and said the United Nations was ready to help foster political dialogue in the resource rich but long troubled central African country.

Ban is "profoundly concerned by reports of increasing political tensions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo linked to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the country's electoral process," his spokesperson said.

In Goma, the capital of the eastern province of North Kivu, vehicles filled with police patrolled the streets, while many shops were closed and schools sent pupils home early.

Political unrest has plagued DR Congo for months over concerns that Kabila intends to extend his rule despite being legally barred from seeking a third term.

The strongman's supporters want elections due later this year to be delayed for two to four years because of logistical and financial difficulties.

But the opposition accuses Kabila of planning to amend the constitution to extend his rule.

'Grotesque lies' 

Despite opposition support for Katumbi, many rank-and-file dissidents are disappointed he left the country on May 20, ostensibly to undergo treatment at a South African hospital.

His departure came a day after he was charged with "threatening the internal and external security of the state" for allegedly hiring foreign mercenaries, including Americans.

The 51-year-old businessman has denied the allegations as "grotesque lies" and says the case is politically motivated.

Katumbi was an ally of Kabila's but broke with him in September after the president announced he would carve up DR Congo's provinces, including Katumbi's stronghold of Katanga, into smaller entities.

Katumbi's followers say he was injured in clashes between police and thousands of his supporters in Lubumbashi on May 13, with a source saying he was suffering from "respiratory problems" after being teargassed.

But his detractors claim he is feigning medical problems.

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