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DRCongo security forces arrest rights activists, including Belgians

Security forces arrested a dozen human rights activists Tuesday in the Democratic Republic of Congo as they protested outside the local headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) in Goma.

Two Belgians, a journalist and a researcher, were briefly held by the security forces, who detained local Congolese militants from the Struggle for Change (Lucha) organisation objecting to the weekend arrest of activists in the capital Kinshasa, local authorities and Lucha members said.

“Nine Lucha militants and two Congolese journalists were arrested at the ANR very brutally. They went there to call for the immediate unconditional release of (youth leader) Fred Bauma and the other pro-democracy activists” detained in Kinshasa, a Lucha member told AFP, asking not to be named.

Government agents in the capital, more than 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) to the west, arrested around 30 people, some of them visiting pro-democracy activists from Senegal and Burkina Faso, as well as the DRC on Sunday.

The armed men swooped on a press conference speakers were giving in the wake of a meeting they said was held to raise awareness and mobilise young people to press for good government.

An American diplomat working for USAID and five journalists covering the news briefing — for AFP, the BBC and Belgian state broadcaster RTBF as well as Congolese TV channel Antenne A — were taken in for questioning.

“We have released the diplomat and the journalists,” government spokesman Lambert Mende said on Monday, but he accused the rights activists of plotting “a campaign to destabilise” the vast mineral-rich central African country, ruled since 2001 by President Joseph Kabila.

The Antenne A reporter, a Congolese citizen, was still in custody on Monday night, according to activists.

– ‘Entirely peaceful’ –

A Lucha member said the organisation had informed the Goma city hall of plans to hold “an entirely peaceful demonstration” on Tuesday, but North Kivu state governor, Julien Pakulu, confirmed that the security forces responded with a crackdown, picking up about a dozen people.

Belgian freelance journalist Alexis Bouvy told AFP that his female compatriot was “thrown to the ground by the ANR people and injured her shoulder when she fell”. Bouvy took the woman to hospital and was forced to delete all photographs he had taken.

“The ANR agents were very aggressive, beating up the Congolese,” Bouvy added.

“I am worried to learn about the arrest of demonstrators in Goma this morning, as well as in Kin last Sunday,” the head of the large UN mission in the country, Martin Kobler, stated on Twitter.

Paris also expressed concern at the arrests, noting Tuesday in a foreign ministry statement that they came “ahead of an electoral cycle essential for the stablity” of the country and urging “respect for public freedoms, notably the freedom of assembly.”

In Kinshasa, bloodshed erupted in January when demonstrators turned out to oppose an electoral bill going through parliament that was seen as offering a way for Kabila to stay on beyond the end of his mandate by 2016.

The legislation finally passed by both houses removed the most disputed clause, but at a cost of 42 lives, according to rights groups. Government spokesman Mende said 27 people “looters” had died.

Militants still in custody on Tuesday include several Congolese, among them Lucha’s Bauma, with the Burkinabe Sidro Ouedraogo of Citizen’s Broom, and Fadel Barro, the charismatic leader of Fed Up, along with fellow Senegalese Aliou Sane and rap musician Fou Malade (“Crazy Sick”).

Both the west African organisations were in the front line of successful bids to stop leaders from prolonging their mandates. Burkina’s Blaise Compaore was topped by a popular uprising.