By Stanis Bujakera and Fiston Mahamba
KINSHASA (Reuters) – Security forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo fired live rounds and teargas on Thursday to disperse demonstrators who burned tires and attacked Ebola centres to protest a decision to exclude them from the presidential election.
The electoral commission (CENI) announced on Wednesday that it was cancelling voting in Sunday’s election in the cities of Beni, Butembo and their surrounding areas due to an ongoing Ebola outbreak and militia violence.
Those places 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.”
Protesters ransacked an Ebola isolation centre in Beni and it is possible that patients fled, Aruna Abedi, the deputy director of the Ebola response, told Reuters.
They also attacked the office of the government agency coordinating the response in Beni before U.N. peacekeepers pushed them back, Abedi said.
“Protesters tried to force the door of the centre,” Abedi told Reuters. “They were chanting songs hostile to the government and demanding elections. They threw projectiles.”
Colonel Safari Kazingufu, the police commander in Beni, said his forces had deployed across the city to restore order, including around Ebola treatment centres.
Beni, Butembo and the rural areas around them have been dealing with an Ebola outbreak – now the second-deadliest in history – since August. It is believed to have killed more than 350 people so far.
But health authorities had repeatedly said that it would not prevent the vote from going ahead, and locals say the outbreak is being used as a pretext to disenfranchise them.
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.
(Reporting By Stanis Bujakera; Additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba in Goma; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Angus MacSwan)