Conflict results in deaths as opponents of President Joseph Kabila fear he is trying to extend his rule.
Thousands of Congolese protesters ransacked shops and battled police for a second day on Tuesday, as anger over fears the president plans to extend his 15-year rule rattled the fragile stability of the resource-rich nation.
In several cities across the Democratic Republic of Congo, rock-wielding demonstrators faced off against police, torching vehicles and gas stations to protest President Joseph Kabila’s perceived plan to extend his tenure in office by delaying elections slated for November.
The second day of conflict came after more than a dozen people, including three policemen, were killed in protests on Monday. Supporters of Mr. Kabila torched the party headquarters of opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi.
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The government condemned that action, but activists and opposition groups vowed to continue nationwide protests, raising the prospect of further violence and increasing pressure on Mr. Kabila to step down at the end of his constitutional mandate in December.
“We can expect further instability and violence ahead as Mr. Kabila sticks to his plan to keep a grip on power,” said Jared Jeffery, an analyst with NKC African Economics.
Monday’s clashes were the deadliest since January 2015, when 38 people were killed in a crackdown against antigovernment protesters. Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende put the death toll at 17, but Joseph Olengankoy, a protest organizer, said as many as 25 people were killed in clashes that spread from Kinshasa to eastern mining cities of Goma, Bukavu and Beni.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that it had credible reports that at least 44 people had been killed during the two days of unrest.
Air France on Tuesday cancelled two flights to Kinshasa from Paris, citing “the degradation of local security situation.”
The company operates the flight four times a week, with the next one scheduled for Thursday.
The unrest is a jolt for Mr. Kabila, one of several entrenched leaders in central and eastern Africa facing increasingly angered opposition. Leaders in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda have successfully scrapped constitutional term limits, but in Burundi, protests against the president’s decision to revise term limits last year sparked months of clashes that left nearly 500 people dead.
For Congo, the protests cap a reversal of fortune after decades of war gave way to a commodity-price boom that looked set to vault the country back to its place as world’s leading source of cobalt, and Africa’s top producer of copper. With mounting regional instability, the fear is there will be a repeat of previous conflict, which drew in neighboring countries’ armies—notably those of Rwanda and Uganda.
Mr. Kabila’s term officially expires in December and he is prohibited by the constitution from seeking re-election. The opposition accuses Mr. Kabila of plotting to extend his tenure by delaying the vote, a charge denied by his supporters. These fears were reinforced on Saturday after the election commission, known as CENI, formally petitioned the Constitutional Court to have the elections scheduled for November postponed, citing the need to update the voter register.
Mr. Mende said on Tuesday that the situation was slowly coming under control, after police arrested several opposition leaders following Monday’s protests.
“Opposition members are luring young people on the streets with alcohol and drugs to cause anarchy,” Mr. Mende told The Wall Street Journal. “We cannot accept this situation.”
Protesters have accused police of firing indiscriminately on demonstrators, a charge authorities denied. United Nations-sponsored radio station Okapi reported that protesters on Monday lynched a police officer and burned his body.
The U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in Kinshasa on Tuesday urged Congo’s security forces to exercise restraint in dealing with protesters.
The U.S. threatened to impose additional sanctions on Congolese security officials perpetuating violence in the crackdown.
But there is little sign that mounting local and international pressure is having any impact.
Over the past two years, Congo’s security forces have intensified a crackdown on the opposition, analysts and rights groups said. Security officials have repeatedly banned opposition demonstrations and fired tear gas and live bullets at peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said.
Congo’s security operatives assaulted Tom Perriello, the U.S. envoy in the region, as he departed the airport over the weekend, drawing condemnation from Washington. Mr. Mende said the government is investigating the incident.
Mr. Kabila has been in power since 2001, when his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated. Congo has posted impressive growth rates, fueled in part by a commodity boom that has now faded. The commodity-price crash is having a devastating effect on a country that depends on minerals and oil for 90% of its export earnings. Kinshasa has slashed 2016 budget spending by 22% and announced social-spending cuts, citing low metal and oil prices, helping fuel the protests.
“This is a struggle we must commit to,” said 25-year-old Pierre Mbonimpa, a youth activist in Goma. “We are not ready to give up.”