KINSHASA (Reuters) - Clashes erupted between protesters and security forces in parts of Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday as diplomats scrambled to defuse tensions ahead of the country’s full election results.
Police fired tear gas at opposition supporters in Kinshasa, and gunfire rang out in a city in West Kasai province, an opposition stronghold, after the government shut down a television and radio broadcaster.
The U.N. mission in Congo led a delegation of diplomats to meet with incumbent President Joseph Kabila and his main rival, Etienne Tshisekedi, to ease tensions stretched by allegations the November 28 poll was mismanaged and fraudulent.
Partial preliminary results released so far - representing about 68 percent of the ballots cast - showed Kabila with about 46 percent of the vote to Tshisekedi’s 36 percent, but the opposition has said they would reject the outcome. Full preliminary results are expected as early as Tuesday.
At least 18 people have been killed in election-related violence, according to Human Rights Watch, and a senior member of Kabila’s camp said the government will have to call in the army if protests become “too chaotic.”
“We cannot let chaos prevail. If the situation becomes too chaotic for the police, we will definitely call for the army to come and help,” Kikaya Bin Karubi, Congo’s ambassador to Britian and a top official in Kabila’s camp, told Reuters.
The first locally organized and funded election since the official end of years of war in 2003 was meant to offer hope that the mineral-rich, crisis-riddled giant may stabilize.
But fears are mounting a rejection of the results will pave the way for further bloodshed.
A national mediation commission is in place and former Zambian President Rupiah Banda may be involved in further talks, sources said. The United Nations peacekeeping mission also led a delegation that included Russian and Gabonese ambassadors to meet with Kabila and Tshisekedi.
Karubi said mediation was a “non-starter” as there was no current conflict, though a spokesman for Banda said he had been approached and was ready to travel to Congo.
“He is just waiting for the U.N. to send a plane for him to travel. He has accepted to mediate,” a spokesman for Banda told Reuters, asking not to be named.
Tshisekedi enjoys broad support in Congo’s sprawling capital Kinshasa, raising worries a Kabila win will spark unrest in the city of 10 million people.
Sirens blared as police convoys pushed through Kinshasa traffic Monday afternoon, and women and children piled into boats along the Congo River to leave for Congo Republic on the other bank, fearing an outbreak of violence.
“We decided to leave Kinshasa for Brazzaville to stay with family while we wait and see how things develop,” said Paulette Pombo, a 43-year-old who sells drinks at a Kinshasa market.
Police used teargas on a crowd of opposition supporters who had gathered near Tshisekedi’s residence in Kinshasa, a witness and an opposition party official said.
Gunfire also erupted in the city of Mbuji Mayi in West Kasai province after Tshisekedi supporters protested the closure of a local opposition television and radio station, provincial civil society leader Alexis Kasuasua said.
Tshisekedi supporters had been attempting to block roads in the city and were being dispersed, Alphonse Kasanji, the governor of West Kasai, told Reuters.
There were no reports of injuries from either incident.
In Brussels, home to a large community of Congolese immigrants, police used water cannon to break up a crowd of Tshisekedi supporters, some of whom were burning trash in the street and shouting slogans. Scuffles were also reported outside Conglese embassies in South Africa and France.
Congo’s Catholic Church urged election authorities on Sunday to ensure published poll results were a true reflection of voters’ intentions and warned that a dispute over the election could trigger major unrest.
Congo’s election commission defied all odds to hold the presidential and parliamentary poll last week. Often chaotic and at times violent, voting had to be stretched over three days due to delays in places.
International observers have warned that the various steps of the counting process after the initial tally at polling stations have been poorly organized, with ballots and results sheets often being lost or destroyed in the process.
Kabila’s camp has said the president would accept defeat. But it accused the opposition of readying people for protests and said he will not tolerate any threats to his authority on the streets in the event of him winning.
Additional reporting by Chris Mfula in Lusaka, Mark John in Brussels, and Christion Tsoumou in Brazzaville; writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Philippa Fletcher