KINSHASA Congo police made a pre-dawn raid on a separatist group in the capital Kinshasa on Tuesday, killing at least four people but failing to arrest their leader, a self-styled religious prophet, witnesses and group members said.
Dozens of armed police stormed the home of Ne Muanda Nsemi, a member of parliament and leader of Bundu dia Kongo (BDK), a religious cult seeking to revive the pre-colonial Kongo kingdom that flourished for centuries around the mouth of the Congo river.
Police have clashed with BDK members several times in the past few weeks in their western heartland of Kongo Central province, but the spread of violence to the capital, hundreds of kilometres away, marks a serious escalation.
It also adds to wider tensions across Congo since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down after his mandate expired in December, raising fears of a slide back into civil war.
"We are looking for (Nsemi). We are going to find him," said Communications Minister Lambert Mende. He said he was not aware of any deaths and denied police had fired live ammunition.
A police spokesman, Pierre Mwanamputu, said Nsemi's supporters had participated in an "armed insurrectional movement" in Kinshasa on Monday.
BDK members at Nsemi's house in Kinshasa's Ngaliema district told Reuters their leader was inside, protected by guards wearing red berets and armed with slingshots and small knives against what they expected would be another nighttime raid.
"TOO MANY INJUSTICES"
The surrounding neighbourhood, inhabited by hundreds of Nsemi's supporters, was quiet on Tuesday afternoon, with police patrolling the perimeter while the Red Cross removed the bodies of four BDK members shot dead in the morning's fighting.
BDK members said that a fifth member was killed and his body carried away by police, while two others had been killed in separate clashes in Kinshasa. Those claims could not be independently verified.
Residents believe the raid may have been provoked by a video circulating on social media in which Nsemi appears to threaten Kabila.
Nsemi and his followers are angry the group did not receive ministerial posts in a power-sharing government named in December.
"We demand our independence because there are too many injustices against us," said supporter Luyindula Kitembo, 35, as he watched the bodies being loaded into a Red Cross van.
Security forces killed more than 300 BDK members and bystanders in crackdowns on sometimes violent protests in 2007 and 2008, dumping their bodies in the Congo river or mass graves, rights groups say.
Separately, the United Nations said on Tuesday that soldiers targeting the Kamwina Nsapu militia group had killed at least 101 people between Feb. 9 and Feb. 13 in central Congo.
(Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Joe Bavier and Richard Lough)