Four people participating in demonstrations against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo were killed Wednesday when a high-voltage power line fell on them, officials said.
Their deaths came on the third day of anti-U.N. protests. At least 15 people, including three U.N. personnel, died and more than 60 people were injured during the earlier demonstrations, Congolese government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said.
Andre Byadunia, a civil society coordinator in the city of Uvira in South Kivu province, said the four demonstrators were electrocuted when a power cable gave way in the Kilomoni district.
Uvira Deputy Mayor Kyky Kifara confirmed the incident and said he was at the demonstration site when the cable fell. He said 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.
Khassim Diagne, acting head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, said later in the day that in the protests Monday and Tuesday, seven Congolese civilians were killed in Butembo in North Kivu province along with one U.N. peacekeeper from Morocco and two U.N. policemen from India. Five people were killed in eastern Congo’s main city, Goma, including an army officer hit by a stray bullet, he said.
Diagne said in a virtual news conference from the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, called the situation “fragile,” and said reinforcements from the United Nations and Congolese forces were securing U.N. bases and installations. He welcomed a strong statement by the governor of North Kivu on Tuesday night banning protests and calling on demonstrators to move out of the streets.
While some demonstrators were peaceful, there were also criminals and looters who were photographed walking out of a U.N. warehouse with bags of rice and dry goods, Diagne 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.
The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday strongly condemned the attacks and peacekeeper deaths and called for “calm and dialogue to resolve current tensions and to ensure protection of civilians." It also underscored the Congolese government's primary responsibility for the safety and security of U.N. peacekeepers and U.N. assets.
Diagne said the United Nations will investigate the killings of the three members of the U.N. peacekeeping mission and seek to bring the perpetrators to justice.
He said the U.N. has seen reports that U.N. troops were firing at civilians, but has no evidence of it. This is why the U.N. wants a joint investigation of the civilian deaths with the government, including an examination of the bullets, “to determine exactly where the shooting came from,” Diagne said.
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. The U.N. has reduced the number of provinces it operates in from 10 in the early 2000s to three today, Daigne said.
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.
Diagne was asked whether he thought the Congolese people wanted the U.N. mission to remain and replied “absolutely.” He cited messages saying it would be a disaster if the U.N. left, but he said the peacekeeping mission needs to better communicate what it does.
The U.N. children’s agency 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.