KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Four people participating in demonstrations against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo were killed Wednesday after a high-voltage power line fell on them, officials said.
Andre Byadunia, a civil society coordinator in the city of Uvira, said the demonstrators were electrocuted when an electric cable gave way in the Kilomoni district.
Uvira Deputy Mayor Kyky Kifara confirmed the incident. He said he was at the demonstration site when the cable fell and he thinks the death toll could have been higher if police and security forces had not already dispersed the crowd.
“I was there, I’ve been there since morning. There was a bullet that cut a high-voltage wire. I almost died myself, Luckily, I barely escaped,” Kifara said.
At least 15 people, including three U.N. personnel, have died and more than 60 people have been injured during what is now three days of demonstrations in eastern Congo, Congolese government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said.
Protesters accuse the peacekeepers of failing to protect civilians amid rising violence and are calling for the U.N. forces that have been in Congo for years to leave. The mission has more than 16,000 uniformed personnel in Congo, according to the U.N.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has condemned the violence, calling on the government to enforce justice on the perpetrators. He also underscored that any attack directed at U.N. peacekeepers might constitute a war crime.
Guterres affirmed the U.N.’s commitment to working with Congolese authorities to investigate accusations that peacekeepers may have been responsible for some deaths.
Congo’s mineral-rich east is home to myriad rebel groups. Security has worsened there despite a year of emergency operations by a joint force of the armies of Congo and Uganda. Civilians in the east have faced violence from jihadi rebels linked to the Islamic State group.
In June 2021 and June 2022, the peacekeeping mission closed its office in Congo’s Kasai Central and Tanganyika regions.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the U.N. made plans to draw down its peacekeeping force and even withdraw from Congo but the force remained because the situation on the ground was too dangerous to contemplate its departure.
Fighting has escalated between Congolese troops and the M23 rebels, forcing nearly 200,000 people to flee their homes. The M23 forces have demonstrated increased firepower and defense capabilities, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
The protests are taking place after Senate President Modeste Bahati told his supporters that the U.N. mission should “pack its bags,” saying the peacekeepers have brought no solutions to deter the thousands of deaths at the hands of rebels in eastern Congo.
Augustin Kalume, a political analyst in Congo, said that while the demonstrations have a political element, there is also genuine anger as “every passing population continues to count deaths, and the looting of natural resources.”
“The population is fed up that despite the millions of dollars that the U.N. mission has cost, these peacekeepers are unable to restore peace and security in the eastern part of Congo,” Kalume said.
U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said Wednesday that many children were manipulated into joining the demonstrations, where they were exposed to violence.
“UNICEF condemns the instrumentalization of children for political purposes and calls on authorities, members of civil society and parents to keep children safe from protests in order to protect them,” Grant Leaity, the UNICEF representative in Congo, said.