Clashes between separatists and police sent to impose order in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s western Bas-Congo flared again on Tuesday, the official death toll rising to 22 after five days of violence.
Police, bolstered by hundreds of reinforcements, began battling members of the ethnic-based political and religious movement Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) in the town of Luozi, 200km west of the capital Kinshasa on Friday.
Clashes continued throughout the weekend as police pursued BDK members from town to town in an effort to pacify the restless province.
BDK’s followers are campaigning for the reestablishment of the pre-colonial Kongo kingdom, which encompasses parts of present-day Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, and Gabon.
Bas-Congo Governor Simon Mbatshi told journalists in the provincial capital Matadi that the number of dead had risen to 22. Hospital officials had initially said on Friday that six people were killed after police opened fire on BDK militants.
Fighting erupted late on Monday in the town of Sekebanza, 80km north of Matadi, and continued into Tuesday morning, witnesses and hospital officials told Reuters.
”The police arrived to attack the BDK. They regrouped in their chapel with rocks and machetes. It went on for a long time last night, but only lasted 10 minutes this morning,” said a witness who asked not to be named.
Guy Ngumbi, the chief of staff at Sekebanza’s General Hospital, said doctors had treated six people with gunshot wounds since Monday, but added that the number of victims of the clashes remained unclear.
”At the hospital we have not yet received any dead, but we are in contact with the population, and out in the neighbourhoods there are a lot of dead.”
The DRC’s 17 000 strong United Nations peacekeeping mission dispatched military and police reinforcements to Bas-Congo on Monday, but they had yet to reach the scene of the violence.
”There have been several reports from several sources that the toll could be higher [than 22 dead], but we are not in a position to be able to confirm it one way or the other,” mission spokesperson Kemal Saiki told Reuters.
BDK followers reject Kinshasa’s authority over the province and the appointment of outsiders to local government positions and in recent weeks have begun carrying out popular justice through their own improvised tribunals.
Three people suspected of being witches were burned alive by BDK members last week, before the government vowed to restore order in the province on Thursday.
In January 2007, 105 people died in a military crackdown on BDK supporters protesting alleged fraud in provincial governor polls. A UN human rights report accused authorities of using ”excessive and indiscriminate lethal force”.
A parliamentary enquiry concluded security forces battled ”an illegal armed group” which attacked them and committed murder, arson, looting and rape. Opposition lawmakers and human rights campaigners dismissed the report as a whitewash. – Reuters