Amid deadly Ebola outbreak, Congolese soldiers fire in air to disperse election protesters

Soldiers and police in the city of Beni in eastern Congo fired in the air on Thursday to disperse demonstrators who barricaded roads and burned tires to protest the decision to exclude them from a presidential election this Sunday.

The electoral commission (CENI) announced Wednesday that it was cancelling the vote in Beni, its surrounding areas and the nearby city of Butembo due to the Ebola outbreak and militia violence.

Those places on the eastern DRC are strongholds of opposition to outgoing President Joseph Kabila, and local politicians denounced the move as an effort to swing the vote in favour of his preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

"There was a group of demonstrators who wanted to enter the CENI office … to demand the withdrawal of the decision," said Giscard Yere, a Beni resident. "But the police officers and soldiers who were there fired to disperse the demonstrators."

'Tear gas and gunfire'

Dozens of protesters waved Congolese flags as they marched down Beni's main boulevard. Most shops in the city of several hundred thousand people remained closed, residents said.

"They went to the mayor's office and then the CENI office. There is tear gas and gunfire," said Teddy Kataliko, a local civil society leader.

Beni, Butembo and the rural areas around them have been dealing with an Ebola outbreak — now the second deadliest in history — since August, but health authorities had repeatedly said it would not prevent the vote from going ahead.

Health-care workers carry the coffin of a baby believed to have died of Ebola, in Beni, North Kivu Province, on Dec. 15. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The CENI also cancelled the vote in the western city of Yumbi because of ethnic violence there last week that killed more than 100 people.

The election to replace Kabila, who has governed since replacing his assassinated father in 2001, was meant to take place in 2016 but has been repeatedly delayed.

That has triggered violent protests in which security forces killed dozens of people. It has also stoked militia violence in Congo's eastern borderlands with Rwanda and Uganda as armed groups moved to exploit a perceived power vacuum.

Shadary is facing two main challengers in a field of 21 candidates: Felix Tshisekedi, the president of Congo's largest opposition party, and Martin Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil manager and national lawmaker.

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