Violence in DR Congo as opposition protests election law

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Democratic Republic of Congo protesters block a street in Kinshasa, on January 19, 2015, as they protest against moves to allow President Joseph Kabila to extend his hold on power

Democratic Republic of Congo protesters block a street in Kinshasa, on January 19, 2015, as they protest against moves to allow President Joseph Kabila to extend his hold on power (AFP Photo/Papy Mulongo)

Kinshasa (AFP) - Fresh clashes erupted Tuesday as demonstrators rampaged in the Democratic Republic of Congo a day after deadly protests over a draft law that would enable President Joseph Kabila to extend his stay in power.

Hundreds of youths torched a town hall in Ngaba, a southern neighbourhood of the capital Kinshasa, while several prisoners escaped from a neighbouring building. Looters also made off with police guns stored at the site.

Opposition parties have called for mass demonstrations against the new electoral bill being debated in the Senate.

They are calling on Kabila -- who has been in power for 14 years -- to quit when his mandate expires in 2016.

In Brussels, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi urged the Congolese people to force a "dying regime" from power.

Tshisekedi, 82, who is recovering from illness in Belgium, has been in opposition since the 1960s, previously taking on the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko as well as Kabila's father Laurent-Desire Kabila.

"The sham regime in Kinshasa is constantly committing irresponsible acts of provocation, plunging the nation into a total impasse that could lead to widespread chaos," he said.

He called on Congolese soldiers and police to "protect citizens and not to obey perverse orders aimed at killing defenceless men and women."

The army and police arrested at least 20 people as protesters hurled rocks at state buildings, public buses and even passing cars. Soldiers fired in the air to scare off looters who targeted a Chinese-owned store.

"We're tired of Kabila. He has to go," a protester told AFP as six vehicles burned nearby.

In an apparent attempt to keep a lid on the protests, authorities have shut down the Internet in the capital Kinshasa.

The unrest is the latest upheaval to rock the troubled central African county, which has been plagued by multiple wars and weakened by decades of misrule.

Four people were killed Monday, according to the authorities, when security forces forcibly dispersed thousands of protesters in Kinshasa, a sprawling city of some nine million people.

About 350 youths massed again on Tuesday in the central district of Lemba, where security forces put out fires set with blazing tyres, and about 30 riot police were trying to restore order, an AFP journalist said.

Police have cordoned off a broad perimeter around parliament, known as the Palace of the People, to stop protesters interrupting the Senate session, which began studying the controversial bill already passed by the lower house on Saturday.

- New electoral roll -

Government spokesman Lambert Mende said two policemen who died on Monday were killed by bullets, saying the other two killed were "looters".

Witnesses said police had fired live ammunition to disperse demonstrators.

At least 10 people were admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds, medical staff reported, while the opposition and diplomats said the casualty figures were most likely higher than the official toll.

Kabila, now 43, first came to power in January 2001 when Kinshasa politicians rushed to make the young soldier head of state after the assassination of his father.

In 2006, Kabila was returned to office in the DR Congo's first free election since independence from Belgium in 1960. He began his second and last five-year constitutional term after a hotly disputed vote in 2011.

His opponents believe that Kabila wants to prolong his mandate by making the presidential and parliamentary elections contingent on a new electoral roll, after a census across the vast mineral-rich country set to begin this year.

The government has acknowledged that the census could delay elections due at the end of 2016, but regional analysts and diplomats estimate the process could take up to three years.

France urged all parties to negotiate proposed reforms "in a consensual fashion, respecting the Democratic Republic of Congo's constitution and civil liberties".