Protests as DR Congo's Kabila defends election delay in Ebola areas
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Protesters angry with the postponement of Sunday's presidential election in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo rallied for a second day on Friday as President Joseph Kabila blamed a deadly Ebola outbreak for the last-minute decision.
Congolese authorities have cited the Ebola outbreak as one of the reasons behind the postponement, which will affect an estimated 1 million voters, with Kabila claiming it would be a "disaster" if someone infects scores or hundreds of others.
This latest delay in an election meant to occur in late 2016 has angered both residents and the opposition, which accuses the government of trying to ensure that Kabila's preferred successor is elected.
Protests broke out in the city of Beni, where hundreds of people demanded the right to vote on Sunday with the rest of the country. Police and the army used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the marchers who barricaded streets.
Some protesters carried crosses displaying "RIP Kabila" and saying his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, "will never be our president".
The latest protests come a day after demonstrators attacked an Ebola response centre in Beni and sent 21 patients fleeing. While the health ministry said most had tested negative for the virus and 11 people had already returned, the vandalism was the latest setback in efforts to contain an outbreak that has already killed more than 350 people.
The uproar over the voting delay has "badly disturbed" Ebola response work in Beni and Butembo, Congo's health ministry said. Health teams could barely deploy on Thursday and no Ebola vaccinations could be carried out, it said.
The Oxfam aid organisation said it was forced to suspend its Ebola response work. Acting country director Raphael Mbuyi called the situation "extremely worrying" because previous suspensions have led to a spike in new cases.
Mbuyi added, however, "it's not surprising that people who have had their votes taken away at the last minute are frustrated and going to the streets. These people deserve to have their say as well."
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Kabila contradicted his own health officials and experts with the World Health Organisation, who have said precautions were taken in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote.
Kabila claimed Ebola could spread as people use voting machines, which require tapping on a touchscreen to select candidates. A polling station could have 500 to 600 voters and "this assumes that a lot of people will be contaminated", he said.
Health officials have said voters would sanitise their hands before and after voting.
Until this week, the Ebola outbreak declared on August 1 had been a challenge but not a barrier to the election. Voting is now delayed in the cities of Beni and Butembo – but not in other communities with confirmed Ebola cases – until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila's successor in January.
There is "no further reason" to prevent Sunday's election, Kabila told the AP, adding: "Rest assured, there will be peace." Police will be there to secure the population, he said.
He dismissed opposition allegations that campaigns had faced restrictions, including blocked flights and assaults on supporters, in recent weeks.
Congo's leader also sounded defiant in the face of international pressure, days after his government ordered the European Union ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours, citing EU sanctions on Kabila's preferred successor, Shadary.
The former interior minister is under an EU asset freeze and travel ban for obstructing Congo's electoral process and for a crackdown against protesters angry over the delayed vote. The EU prolonged the sanctions this month.
Kabila, when asked what advice he had for his successor, replied: "The biggest recommendation is that he listen to the voice of the Congolese and not follow that of the United States, Europe or elsewhere."
Congo has resisted what it considers international meddling, vowing to fund the election itself. Western observer groups are notably absent.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)