KINSHASA - Six people were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday as the authorities cracked down on a banned protest against President Joseph Kabila.
Witnesses said security forces fired live rounds and tear gas in Kinshasa to disperse demonstrators who had gathered after Catholic church leaders called for a mass peaceful demonstration against Kabila's 17-year rule.
The UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO said six people were killed in Kinshasa and 57 injured nationwide in the rallies.
"The defence and security forces did not apply the principles of necessity, proportionality and legality in accordance with international standards," MONUSCO spokesperson Florence Marchal told AFP.
Pope Francis, who was in Peru on the final day of a South American tour, called on all parties in the country to "avoid all forms of violence and seek solutions for the common good".
MONUSCO said 111 people were arrested across the country, adding that some UN observers were "threatened and harassed" by security forces in the capital.
A spokesman for the national police told state television that "two people were killed" in the capital, while nine policemen were wounded, two of them seriously.
Of the two killed, according to the authorities' toll, one was shot at close range by a police officer, the presidency's spokesman Yvon Ramazani said in a call to AFP.
"The policeman is under arrest and must be brought to justice," he said.
Sunday's bloody crackdown comes three weeks after a similar march on New Year's Eve ended in deadly violence, during which the UN said at least five people were killed.
In the latest violence, a 16-year-old girl died after shots were fired from an armoured vehicle at the entrance to a church in the Kitambo area of the capital, Jean-Baptise Sondji, a former minister and government opponent, told AFP.
"An armoured car passed in front of the church. They began firing live bullets, I protected myself," Sondji, who is also a doctor, said by telephone.
"A girl who was at the left side door of the church was hit by a bullet," he said, adding that she was already dead when she was taken by taxi to hospital.
Government minister Felix Kabange Numbi told AFP that "hundreds of people recruited by the parish priest of Saint-Christophe tried to enter" his residence.
"My guard fired warning shots before the arrival of reinforcements who arrested 145 people," he said.
Tensions were also reported by AFP journalists in the major cities of Kisangani, Lubumbashi, Goma, Beni and Mbuji Mayi.
Calls for peace
Ahead of the march, internet, email and social media messaging networks had been cut in the capital in an attempt to prevent people from organising gatherings.
Security forces also installed roadblocks on major routes and armed officers conducted ID checks.
The country's powerful Catholic Church, one of the few institutions to enjoy broad credibility nationally, had called for the rallies despite a government ban on all demonstrations since September 2016, when anti-Kabila protests first turned violent.
The head of the Muslim community, Cheikh Ali Mwinyi M'Kuu, had urged the authorities on Saturday to allow the march to take place.
"If they decide to repress, there will be no peace. But if they let the march take place, they will respect the constitution and peace will prevail."
Kabila, 46, has been in power since 2001, at the helm of a regime widely criticised for corruption, repression and incompetence.
His constitutional term in office expired in December 2016 but he stayed on, stoking a bloody spiral of violence.
Under an agreement brokered by the Catholic Church, he was allowed to stay in office provided new elections were held in 2017.
The authorities later blamed organisational problems for a new delay until December 23, 2018 - a postponement that has angered Western nations, but one that they have reluctantly accepted.