Sun, Feb 04, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Congolese police fire at protesters, kill close to 100


Nearly 100 people died and 30 others were wounded this week in clashes that erupted when demonstrators protesting alleged electoral fraud rampaged through several towns and security forces tried to restore order, rights groups and humanitarian organizations said.

Dolly Ibefo of the rights group Voice for the Voiceless said on Friday the deaths -- mostly demonstrators shot by police or soldiers -- had occurred since Monday in several towns in southwestern Bas Congo Province.

The area was reported quiet on Friday.

The protests were led by Bundu Dia Kongo, a group that supports former warlord-turned-senator Jean-Pierre Bemba. On Friday evening, Bemba issued a statement condemning the killing of protesters by police.

"It constitutes an abuse of power," he said in the statement broadcast on local TV.

Violence spread to at least five towns in Bas Congo, including Matadi, Boma, Kasangulu, Kinzaomvwete and Moanda.

Ibefo said the rights group's assessment was based on witness testimony and local rights officials in the troubled southwest province.

He said more than a third of the casualties had occurred in Moanda and the dead included several soldiers and police officers.

Willy Iboma, who heads the local Foundation for the Defense of Children's Rights, said demonstrators in Moanda had rampaged through the town's streets, setting ablaze a police post and several government buildings, prompting security forces to intervene.

Authorities ordered soldiers from nearby Kitona to the area to help restore order and the soldiers had used automatic weapons and rockets.

"Until now, bodies are still being gathered from the streets and the bush" in Moanda after violence reached its peak there on Thursday, Iboma said by telephone from the town.

A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, Kemal Saiki, said the UN had not obtained any official toll.

The bulk of the UN's 18,000 peacekeepers are deployed on the other side of the country, which is wracked by sporadic fighting involving militias and renegade army units.

Speaking by telephone from Kinshasa, the head of Bundu Dia Kongo, Ne Mwanda Ne Semi, described the events in Bas Congo as "a peaceful protest that was bloodily repressed by police and soldiers."

"The whole of Bas Congo is rising up against corruption that has infected all the elections and especially the election of senators and governors," Semi said.

Gubernatorial elections took place last weekend and the legislative vote was held a week before that.

Local radio stations said on Thursday that shops and street stalls were shuttered in the affected towns and residents had taken cover as protesters barricaded streets with the shells of destroyed cars.

Bemba, a former warlord who once controlled a vast territory in northern Congo and became vice president in a power-sharing deal that ended the country's 1998 to 2002 war and re-united the country, won a senatorial seat last month.

Bemba's militia clashed with President Joseph Kabila's forces twice last year, as results were announced in the initial presidential vote and the runoff that marked Congo's first free elections for a head of state since wresting independence from Belgium in 1960.

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