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World

Violence Mounts As Congo's President Tries To Cling To Power

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Democratic Republic of Congo has entered a period of extreme risk. Those were recent words of warning from the man who runs the U.N. mission in that large central African country. The U.N. is there to help the DRC recover from a devastating civil war.

The opposition accuses Congo's president of trying to stay in power beyond the end of his term in December. Political disputes are boiling over into street violence, and that's not something the U.N. is set up to police, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The International Crisis Group is out with a new report called the "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams." It's how the author, Richard Moncrieff, describes the mood in the streets of Kinshasa these days.

RICHARD MONCRIEFF: People are angry. People want to go out on the street and express their views. But we know from all the recent history that quite frequently street protests turn ugly.

KELEMEN: Back in September when the Electoral Commission did not launch a presidential campaign as it was supposed to do, protesters clashed with police, and 49 people were killed. The protesters accuse President Joseph Kabila of trying to stay in power beyond his second and final term. And tensions are mounting again according to the head of the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Maman Sidikou.

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MAMAN SIDIKOU: Actors on all sides appear more and more willing to resort to violence to achieve their ends.

KELEMEN: He told the Security Council this week that this is a risky period for the country. And though the U.N. mission known as MONUSCO is the largest U.N. peacekeeping force with 22,000 troops and police, it doesn't have the mandate to respond to what Sidikou fears will be a major flare-up between security forces and opposition protesters.

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SIDIKOU: If this trajectory continues, I believe large-scale violence is all but inevitable. And while MONUSCO will do everything it can within its mandate to protect civilians, the scope of the threats dramatically outstrip the mission's capabilities.

KELEMEN: The U.S. envoy on the region, Thomas Perriello, says such violence could be avoided with a single sentence if Congo's president would only say he's committed to holding presidential elections and that he would cede power to the winner.

THOMAS PERRIELLO: One of the tragedies about the situation in Congo is that this crisis was entirely avoidable. But unfortunately the government has decided not to avoid it.

KELEMEN: Joseph Kabila's term ends in December. Perriello says this is the moment that will define his legacy, and the U.S. is trying to remind the Congolese leader of that.

The U.S. envoy is also consulting with European partners on ways to keep up the pressure, including through targeted sanctions. The goal is to get the government to negotiate with the opposition and agree on a path toward elections as required by the Congolese Constitution.

PERRIELLO: We see north, south, east and west within DRC a strong desire to move forward to what would be a historic election, the first peaceful democratic transition of power in the country's history. And if the government continues to stand in the way of that, they're doing so at great risk to the stability of the country.

KELEMEN: A country that is the size of Western Europe. And as Perriello points out, the last time it devolved into civil war, millions were killed.

PERRIELLO: So everyone knows what the worst case scenario can be. And I think everybody has some sense of how committed the Congolese people are to seeing this go in a much more positive direction.

KELEMEN: U.S., U.N., European and African officials are scrambling now to try to prevent what Perriello calls an avoidable crisis and reach a negotiated solution soon. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.