Security forces fired shots in the air and dispersed a mass with tear gas yesterday in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, where the Catholic church had called banned marches against President Joseph Kabila staying in power.
"While we were praying, the soldiers and the police entered the church compound and fired tear gas at the church" where the mass was being held, a worshipper in the parish of St. Michael in the central municipality of Bandalungwa told AFP. "They dispersed us," he added.
All the Democratic Republic of Congo's opposition and civil society groups joined in the march to demand Kabila leave office immediately and to promise he will not seek to further extend his time in power.
"People fell, first-aiders are resuscitating old ladies who have fallen, but the priest has not stopped saying mass, which continues with Christians who have not fled," said another parishioner who identified herself as Chantal.
At the Notre-Dame of Congo Cathedral in Gombe, north Kinshasa, security forces also fired tear gas as opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi arrived, AFP journalists saw.The soldiers then entered the compound of the main church of the capital, asking people to leave the premises. The parish priest asked worshippers to "return to their homes in peace because there is a heavy presence of soldiers and police ready to fire."
Elections had been due to take place by the end of this year under a church-mediated deal aimed at avoiding more violence in a vast, mineral-rich country which has never had a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. The delayed poll is now scheduled for December 23 next year, heightening tensions in the restive nation.
Congolese authorities cut off internet access "for reasons of state security" before the planned march, and security forces were deployed in Kinshasa, AFP journalists saw.The army and the police deployed in large numbers overnight at churches across Kinshasa, the capital of around 10 million people. Security forces also set up roadblocks in several parts in the city. The army and the police were stopping and searching vehicles.