DRC: Police fire bullets, tear gas amid election protest; Dec 30 poll called off in two conflict zones

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By Associated Press

POLICE in eastern Congo fired live ammunition and tear gas on Thursday to disperse dozens of people protesting a presidential election delay that means more than 1 million votes will not count.

The protesters in Beni said the delay announced Wednesday by Congo’s electoral commission makes no sense. The delay of Sunday’s election until March for Beni and Butembo city is blamed on a deadly Ebola outbreak, with a similar delay in Yumbi blamed on insecurity. The rest of the country is still set to vote on Sunday, with “definitive” results announced on Jan. 15 and the inauguration three days later.

Opposition candidates call the delay a ploy to hurt their chances at the polls in areas where sentiment has turned against the ruling party in recent years.

Angry protesters in Beni marched to the local election office demanding the right to vote on Sunday with the rest of Congo. Others chanted for longtime President Joseph Kabila to go. Kabila has said he is stepping aside after the election, which has been delayed for more than two years amid sometimes deadly protests. He backs a ruling party candidate but many Congolese believe he will wield power behind the scenes.

The protesters also demanded that the electoral commission’s president resign. They pointed out that candidates have campaigned in Beni and Butembo with no problems, while school, church and other activities continue despite the Ebola virus outbreak.

“We will continue with our marches until (commission president Corneille Nangaa) and his entourage let us vote because it is our right as Congolese,” said Clovis Mutsuva with the LUCHA activist organization.

“We participated in campaigning and there were no Ebola infections,” Mutsuva added. “Why can a single day of voting cancel the elections for us?”

The election already had been pushed from Dec. 23 to Sunday after a fire in the capital, Kinshasa, destroyed voting materials. Congo has some 40 million registered voters who will decide the fate of a vast country rich in mineral wealth but desperately poor in infrastructure and basic services.

The latest delay has caused fresh frustration in Beni, where rebel attacks have killed more than 1,500 people in the past four years. Such attacks have hurt efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak, which since being declared Aug. 1 has seen 585 cases, including 308 confirmed deaths.

Congo’s health minister, Dr. Oly Ilunga, has called this Ebola outbreak the most complex in history. In an interview with The Associated Press on Dec. 20, however, he said decisions about holding the election in the Ebola zone had been made with electoral authorities, and sought to calm concerns.

The Ebola virus is spread via infected bodily fluids, and some have worried about using the touchscreens of voting machines. The health minister said precautions had been taken. Several tons of hand sanitiser were deployed for use in polling stations, and voters were to be screened for fever before entering polling stations.