December 22, 2016 / 9:24 AM / 3 years ago

Congo security forces killed at least 34 in anti-Kabila protests -HRW

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Security forces in Democratic Republic of Congo killed at least 34 people during protests this week against President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his mandate, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

Congolese policemen drive past a fire barricade during demonstrations in the streets of the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa, December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Congo’s capital Kinshasa and other cities were convulsed by violent demonstrations on Tuesday as Kabila, in power since 2001, reached the end of his second term in office without an election in place to choose his successor.

HRW’s Central Africa director said on Twitter that the deaths, including 19 in the capital Kinshasa and five in the southeastern mining hub of Lubumbashi, happened at protests early on Tuesday and HRW was verifying reports of more deaths.

Congo’s government says 22 people were killed in the clashes, including a police officer, most of them by stray bullets or while looting.

Separately, fighting in the eastern province of North Kivu between Hutu and Nande ethnic militia - violence fed by Congo’s political uncertainty and its security vacuum - killed 17 civilians and a police officer, a local army spokesman said.

“Some were killed by gunshots and others by machetes,” local army spokesman Captain Guillaume Djike told Reuters.

Authorities said on Wednesday they had arrested 275 people across the country, 116 of whom remain in custody. LUCHA group activist, Fred Bauma, tweeted on Thursday that police had arrested 14 more youth activists in the eastern city of Bukavu, including six from LUCHA.

A police spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

African and Western powers fear escalating violence over the political impasse could spark another major conflict in the massive central African nation where millions were killed between 1996 and 2003, and which has never experienced a peaceful transition of power.

In a bid to avoid that, talks between pro- and anti-Kabila politicans, facilitated by the Catholic church, took place on Thursday, but it is unclear what they can achieve, since the opposition has said a deal is possible only if Kabila commits publicly to stepping down and holds an election next year.

The constitution bars Kabila from standing for a new term but his government says it cannot organise the presidential election, originally scheduled for last month, until at least April 2018 due to delays in registering millions of voters.

Opposition leaders say the delay is a ploy by Kabila to cling to power and ultimately change the constitution to run again. Kabila denies this but has declined to commit to not changing the constitution.

Editing by Tim Cocks and Louise Ireland

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