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Police detain opposition protesters in Congo

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Police take away a demonstrator Friday in Kinshasa during a protest by the top Congolese opposition party.

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Democratic Republic of Congo
Police
Joseph Kabila
Etienne Tshisekedi

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -- Armed riot police detained dozens of supporters of the Democratic Republic of Congo's leading political opposition party Friday when they broke up a protest over preparations for landmark polls, officials said.

It was the first protest police have broken up since the adoption of a post-war constitution enshrining free speech and the right to demonstrate after an overwhelming endorsement in a December referendum, the first free nationwide vote in 40 years.

The protest by supporters of longtime opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi's UDPS party coincided with the first day of registration for candidates in a June 18 presidential election.

Armed police with plastic riot shields staged a series of charges at hundreds of demonstrators, beating some with batons and firing tear gas from close quarters to disperse them, but protesters quickly regrouped, some throwing stones at police.

Many chanted the party slogan "Viva, viva" and carried red, white and blue party flags or posters of Tshisekedi.

A Reuters reporter saw police drag at least 10 demonstrators into the back of blue police trucks.

One policeman used a short length of chain to beat people.

"We are just here doing our jobs. We are here to protect the population," said a riot police officer interviewed by Reuters during the protest near Kinshasa's main train station.

Organizers said they intended to march to the headquarters of the U.N. mission in Congo, the world body's largest peacekeeping mission with 17,000 soldiers and police, to present a memorandum pressing the party's demands regarding the polls.

The U.N. mission said around 40 people were arrested, though one organizer said he thought up to 250 had been detained.

"We regret the use of violence. There is freedom of expression in Congo, as guaranteed by the recently adopted constitution, and part of this is the right to demonstrate," U.N. spokesman Kemal Saiki said.

"We were expecting this letter, and we were ready to receive it. Unfortunately, they were never able to deliver it."

UDPS Secretary-General Remy Masamba told Reuters by phone he had been arrested, and Franck Diongo, a march organizer, said many more were also detained.

"People are being held all over town. I've been to see 25 of them in one station, but we think about 250 have been arrested in total. We will not be discouraged," Diongo said.

President Joseph Kabila signed into law a new electoral act Thursday, allowing the electoral commission to confirm a June 18 date for the vast country's first free polls in four decades, designed to draw a line under a devastating 1998-2003 war.

But the UDPS, long the leading political opposition force, has said it will only take part in the elections on certain conditions that relate mainly to voter registration and UDPS participation in election preparations.

Apart from political wrangling, fighting continues in Congo's east despite efforts by U.N. peacekeepers and the chaotic national army to halt looting, rape and killing.

Demonstrator Christian Ilunga criticized the police actions.

"The president said we were heading toward the rule of law. Do we have weapons? No. And they call this the DRC," he said.

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