Police in the eastern Congolese city of Beni have detained dozens of people and fired live rounds to disperse protesters demanding the departure of the United Nations peacekeeping mission for its failure to stop the bloodshed in the region, according to local authorities and witnesses.
Hundreds of young people have been protesting for days in several cities in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), angry that the UN mission, known as MONUSCO, has not prevented a wave of civilian killings by armed groups.
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“We only demand two things: for MONUSCO to leave and for the Congolese government to take its responsibility so that we can have peace,” said Clovis Mutsova, a member of youth activist group LUCHA.
Some 330 people have been killed so far this year in the violence, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, which maps unrest in the region.
“Young people have barricaded almost all the roads to ask the UN mission to leave this region plagued by massacre,” Beni Mayor Modeste Buhindo Bakwanamaha told the Reuters news agency.
“This morning the police are clearing the blocked roads, that’s why there is shooting all over the city,” Bakwanamaha added.
Voici ce qui se passe à Beni. Dites-nous qui est violent. @MONUSCO , @comgenpnc , @FARDC_ , @droitshumains_M , @Jmchataigner , @USAmbDRC @UKinDRC @SwedeninDRCongo @Presidence_RDC vous approuvez ceci? pic.twitter.com/9xzfErY9WR
— LUCHA 🇨🇩 (@luchaRDC) April 8, 2021
Heavy gunfire started about 7am (05:00 GMT) and could be heard until the late afternoon, a witness told Reuters.
Local police spokesman Nasson Murara said officers had cleared the barricades and made about 60 arrests. “We have just got the situation under control after a very tense day.”
‘Act up or pack up’
At least one protester was seriously wounded by gunshot, LUCHA said, adding that protests also took place in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, where Beni also belongs. The casualty count could not be independently confirmed.
“The violent crackdown on peaceful protests today in Beni, Goma [and] Butembo is a blatant violation of people’s rights,” Thomas Fessy, senior DRC researcher for Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter, calling for the immediate release of those arrested.
“People of east[e]rn Congo are tired of the relentless violence [and] killings, particularly in #Beni territory. It is their right to peacefully march to demand that the state [and] UN peacekeepers better protect civilians,” he added.
“We denounce the ineffectiveness of the UN force MONUSCO, which has an offensive mission but which for years has failed to do anything. MONUSCO must either act or pack up,” Depaul Bakulu, a civil society activist in Beni, said in a protest earlier this month.
“We want to mobilise the national and international opinion in the face of this tragedy.”
Responding to the protests, MONUSCO spokesman Mathias Gillman said on Wednesday, “We are here at the invitation of the government. It is not us who decides that we stay.”
MONUSCO took over from an earlier peacekeeping mission in 2010. It has more than 12,000 troops deployed, most in the vast country’s mineral-rich east, where killings more than doubled last year.
In December 2019, several people were killed in Beni and Goma as angry protesters took to the streets to call for the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers who they accused of not protecting them against deadly rebel attacks.
The DRC’s volatile east is home to more than 100 rebel groups including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The ADF originated in the 1990s in western Uganda intending to establish a so-called “Islamic state”.
According to Kivu Security Tracker, the group has killed more than 1,200 civilians in the Beni area alone since 2017.
On March 19, the UN said a surge of ADF attacks since the start of the year had killed nearly 200 people and forced 40,000 to flee their homes.
At least 23 people were killed by suspected fighters from the group last week in Beu Manyama-Moliso village in the Beni region. More than 17 others were killed in separate attacks on March 23.
Last year, the UN said the group’s attacks could constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.