Several people have been reported dead as protesters clashed with security forces in the city of Goma, in the restive east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Large rocks littered a street where crowds of demonstrators gathered on Monday for a standoff with police to protest against growing insecurity and what they believe is the imminent arrival of security forces from neighbouring Rwanda to quell unrest – a claim denied by the Congolese government.
The protesters converged on arterial roads early in the morning, setting up makeshift barricades and burning tyres. Gunfire rang out across the capital of North Kivu province, and police fired tear gas and used live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators whom they accused of stealing at least three weapons from them and attacking security posts.
“Two law enforcement officers were killed and two seriously injured,” General Sylvain Ekenge, a spokesman for the military governor of North Kivu province, told reporters. “These acts will not go unpunished,” Ekenge said.
A local community leader and a police source who requested anonymity told the AFP news agency that one protester had been shot dead while riding a motorbike. Mario Ngavho, the president of Goma’s civil society, told the Reuters news agency at least two civilians were killed and six wounded on Monday.
The main market in the city centre was closed, as well as banks and schools, following the call for a general shutdown to denounce rising crime in the city.
Many in Goma are also fed up with a surge in attacks by various armed groups in North Kivu and Ituri provinces that has led authorities in May to declare a “state of siege“, with soldiers replacing civil servants in key positions.
But continuing deadly violence has raised questions as to whether the strategy is working and protesters called for the state of siege to be re-evaluated.
The protesters also said they “categorically oppose the entry of Rwandan policemen in Goma” after the two countries last week signed a deal to combat cross-border trafficking.
“We are not going to support the arrival of the Rwandan police in Goma. What are they hiding from us?” said Paluku Issa, one of the demonstrators.
But DRC officials have insisted any suggestion Rwandan soldiers would be charged with maintaining law and order in Goma was not true.
“This Rwandan police presence in Goma exists only in the imagination of the salesmen of illusions and the manipulators, as well as people of bad faith, who are ready to jump on any rumour to cause disorder,” said Ekenge, the spokesman for the military governor.
The two countries’ relations have been fraught over the past 30 years, with Rwanda accusing the DRC of giving shelter to ethnic Hutus responsible for carrying out the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Rwanda was later among the neighbouring countries that invaded the DRC during its back-to-back civil wars, and in the years since the two countries have accused each other of supporting opposing armed militias.
Many Goma residents view the recently signed agreement with suspicion, fearing it could lead to Rwanda annexing portions of eastern DRC.
“We do not want Rwandans in our country,” protester Tommy Mashauri said.
Earlier this month, the DRC launched a joint military operation with Uganda under which at least 1,700 Ugandan troops have crossed into eastern DRC to battle the Allied Democratic Forces, considered the deadliest of many armed groups that roam the mineral-rich region.