Teargas, checkpoints as Congo tries to stop anti-government demonstrations

The activists are demanding that Kabila commit to not changing the constitution to stand for a third term and to release political prisoners. Photograph:( AFP )

Reuters Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Dec 31, 2017, 09.47 AM (IST)

Congolese police and soldiers on Sunday set up checkpoints across the capital Kinshasa and fired teargas at opposition supporters who had gathered outside churches to protest against President Joseph Kabila.

Authorities ordered internet and SMS services to be cut following calls by Catholic activists for protest marches after Sunday mass.

The activists are demanding that Kabila commit to not changing the constitution to stand for a third term and to release political prisoners.

The police have banned demonstrations and said that all gatherings of more than five people will be dispersed.

Across Kinshasa, police and soldiers searched vehicles and checked passengers' identifications.

Some 40 percent of Congo's population is Roman Catholic and the Church enjoys rare credibility with the public, even though its leadership has not formally backed the protests.

At the Notre Dame du Congo cathedral in Kinshasa's Lingwala district, where opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi was attending mass, dozens of police and soldiers blocked the path of more than 100 opposition supporters as they prepared to try to march.

Tshisekedi, however, who had backed the activists' call to march, left the church in a vehicle, spurring angry shouts from the crowd, which said he was abandoning them.

At the Paroisse Saint Michel in Bandalungwa district, security forces fired teargas into the church, creating panic, opposition leader Vital Kamerhe, who was present at the mass, told Reuters.

"All of the neighbouring community came out (to protest) and I think that this shows the will of the people and marks the beginning of the end of the dictatorship," Kamerhe said.

At another church in the working class district of Barumbu, a few dozen police officers used teargas and stun grenades against some 300 churchgoers, who waved bibles and sang religious songs as they tried to march, a Reuters witness said.

A police spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Opposition appeals for protests this year have been easily suppressed by security forces but the Catholic activists' appeal has managed to unite nearly all of Congo's fractious opposition.

Kabila's ruling coalition and opposition leaders struck a deal last Dec. 31 that allowed Kabila to stay in power beyond the end of his second and final term but required that the election to replace him be held by the end of 2017.

The country's electoral commission, however, later said that was not possible and scheduled the vote for Dec. 23, 2018.