LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - A leading opposition candidate for president of Democratic Republic of Congo was questioned on Monday over government allegations he hired mercenaries in a plot against the state, a case that could halt his fledgling campaign.
Police fired tear gas at thousands of supporters of Moise Katumbi who were advancing on the prosecutor general’s office, where he was being questioned, chanting “president!”, a Reuters witness said.
Some entered the building and at least four were arrested. After Katumbi emerged from the building, police made further arrests and again fired teargas at the crowd.
The hearing was later suspended until Wednesday.
Katumbi’s supporters say the allegations are aimed at disrupting his campaign to succeed President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled since 2001 but is barred from standing for a third term at elections set for November.
“The tricks continue in this trial of shame,” Katumbi’s chief adviser, Salomon Idi Kalonda Della, said on Twitter.
Katumbi has denied accusations made by the justice minister last week that he hired mercenaries, including U.S. soldiers. The enquiry could lead to charges that carry a prison term and could also tie Katumbi in legal knots during the campaign.
Many Congolese say Katumbi is the strongest opposition candidate to succeed Kabila, given his personal wealth and popularity as the former governor of Congo’s main copper-producing region. He also owns a football team.
Kabila is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term but has yet to announce his intentions. His ruling party has not named another candidate and the opposition says Kabila wants to delay the election in order to retain power.
Katumbi arrived at the prosecutor general’s office accompanied by leaders of an opposition coalition that has backed his presidential bid.
He governed Katanga, the southeastern copper-mining heartland, from 2007 until last September when he quit Kabila’s ruling party, accusing it of plotting to keep the president in power beyond a two-term limit.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Congolese authorities have arrested at least 27 of Katumbi’s associates, including six employees and the two sons of an ally, since late last month. It called the arrests “targeted actions against a presidential aspirant and close supporters”.
The government denies Katumbi is being targeted for political reasons.
Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross in Kinshasa; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Richard Balmforth, Larry King