The Congolese army must prevent further violence among its rival factions that has caused unnecessary civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said today. Yesterday, security forces in the eastern city of Goma fired mortars against soldiers based in a crowded neighborhood, killing two children and injuring 10 other civilians.
The violence among army factions comes at a time when security forces across the country have been on high alert for weeks. Opposition parties had called for mass protests to force the Congolese transitional government to step down on June 30, the deadline originally set by the 2003 Sun City Accord.
In towns around the country, security forces have responded to demonstrations with unnecessary force, killing at least four protestors. Opposition parties claim that 24 demonstrators have been killed.
Yesterday in Goma, military police used indiscriminate and disproportionate force in an attempt to disarm the bodyguards of the regional military chief of staff. Military police fired mortars towards the home of the chief of staff, located in a crowded neighborhood. Two small children in a neighboring house were killed, and 10 other civilians were injured, including five children, two of whom are in critical condition. Several homes were damaged during an hour long firefight in which both parties repeatedly fired assault rifles.
“Soldiers fired mortars into a crowded residential neighborhood,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The Congolese government must investigate and prosecute this indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force.”
In Goma, the local branch of the main opposition party canceled a march planned for yesterday, citing fears that their peaceful protest would be hijacked by forces opposed to peace. But special security measures remained in place in the city, adding to existing tension between different factions of the army.
The failure to integrate dozens of former armed groups into a truly unified national army poses a major threat to Congo’s transition process. In Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, the military police and the chief of staff’s escort are drawn from factions that were opposed to each other during Congo’s war. In December, at least 100 civilians were killed and scores of women and girls were raped in North Kivu during combat between the same factions.
For months, opposition parties called for demonstrations on June 30, tapping into popular dissatisfaction with the slow pace of planning for elections and other critical tasks on the transitional government’s agenda.
Elsewhere in the country, opposition plans to protest moved forward, but were quickly quashed by security forces. In the Congolese capital Kinshasa, security forces killed at least two protestors yesterday; the main opposition party claimed that 10 were killed. . Police had erected barricades around the city to prevent the movement of demonstrators. An international observer witnessed police chasing and shooting at a small group of unarmed demonstrators whom they had already dispersed with tear gas. About 450 protestors were arrested. In Tshikapa, in Eastern Kasai province, opposition parties claimed up to six protestors had been killed yesterday.
On June 25, mixed police and army patrols killed four protestors in Mbuji-Mayi, the capital of Western Kasai province and stronghold of the main opposition party. Security forces used disproportionate force against unarmed protestors, according to United Nations observers. On Wednesday night, at least two more people were killed in Mbuji-Mayi and nine people injured.
“The events around June 30 highlight the ongoing potential for violence and human rights abuses in Congo’s pre-election period,” said Des Forges. “The Congolese government and security forces bear the ultimate responsibility for preventing violence. The security forces must not use disproportionate force when responding to protests by unarmed civilians.”
The U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible refrain from the use of force. Whenever force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Firearms should not be used against persons except in select circumstances to preserve life. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and with respect for the preservation of human life.
In some towns, demonstrations and anniversary marches occurred without violent incident. The June 30 anniversary marks two years of the Congolese transition process as well as 45 years of Congolese independence from colonial rule.