8 killed in DR Congo as Catholics defy ban on anti-president protests

A security person checks a car in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo December 31, 2017. | Reuters/Kenny Katombe

At least eight people were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday after security forces stormed Catholic churches across the country in an attempt to break up the protests against President Joseph Kabila.

Catholic activists have called for protests after Sunday worship to demand the resignation of Kabila, who had promised to hold an election to choose his successor by the end of 2017.

At least eight people were killed, including one policeman, as clashes broke out during a protest in the capital Kinshasa.

Police and soldiers set up roadblocks in order to prevent around a thousand people from taking part in the protest. Dozens of people were arrested, including 12 altar boys leading a protest in the nation's capital.

Kabila had publicly stated that he will not extend his power beyond a two-term constitutional limit, but elections have been repeatedly delayed since the limit expired in December 2016.

Elections were supposed to take place by the end of 2017 under a church-mediated deal between Kabila and the opposition, but the election has now been delayed until December 2018. The protesters were seeking a promise from Kabila that he will not further extend his term.

Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, stated in his year-end speech that the recent publication of an electoral timetable for the December 2018 vote "is driving us irreversibly toward organising elections."

"I invite you to take ownership (of the voting process) and exercise your right through this process," the president said, as reported by Agence France Presse (AFP).

He also appeared to have issued a warning to protesters, urging people to remain "alert" to "bar the road to those who [have sought to] use elections as a pretext in recent years, and who today would be tempted to use violence, to stop the ongoing Democratic process and plunge the country into the abyss."

The authorities had earlier warned that any gathering of more than five people will be dispersed. The internet and SMS services were also shut down earlier as church and opposition groups pushed ahead with the demonstrations.

In one incident, an army officer allegedly threatened a team of reporters covering the crackdown at St. Michael's church in Kinshasa.

"If you don't clear out of here, I'll order that you be shot at," the officer said, according to AFP. "Press, or not, no one is allowed inside. What's more, you have a white man with you – that's a race that causes us problems," he added.

One reporter at a demonstration in Kananga had witnessed a man shot in the chest by soldiers who had opened fire on worshippers gathered for the protest.

A U.N. source said that seven people were killed in Kinshasa and one in Kananga, adding that there had been 82 arrests, including priests, in the capital and "41 in the rest of the country."