Protesters in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city of Beni ransacked an Ebola isolation centre on Thursday, sending patients fleeing, senior health officials said.
A handful of the patients were waiting to be tested for the infectious disease when the centre came under attack from demonstrators angry over the government’s decision to exclude Beni and other cities from voting in Sunday’s presidential election.
Protesters also attacked the office of the government agency coordinating the Ebola response in Beni before UN peacekeepers pushed them back, Aruna Abedi, the deputy director of the Ebola response in the region, said.
Security forces fired live rounds and teargas to disperse demonstrators who burned tires in and around Beni and other eastern cities where this weekend’s poll has been delayed.
The electoral commission (CENI) announced on Wednesday that it was cancelling voting in Sunday’s election in the cities of Beni, Butembo and their surrounding areas due to the Ebola outbreak and militia violence.
Those places are strongholds of opposition to outgoing President Joseph Kabila and local politicians denounced the move as an effort to swing the vote in favour of his preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
"There was a group of demonstrators who wanted to enter the CENI office… to demand the withdrawal of the decision," said Giscard Yere, a Beni resident. "But the police officers and soldiers who were there fired to disperse the demonstrators."
Mr Abedi added: "Protesters tried to force the door of the centre. They were chanting songs hostile to the government and demanding elections. They threw projectiles."
Colonel Safari Kazingufu, the police commander in Beni, said his forces had deployed across the city to restore order, including around Ebola treatment centres.
Beni, Butembo and the rural areas around them have been dealing with an Ebola outbreak – now the second-deadliest in history – since August. It is believed to have killed more than 350 people so far.
But health authorities had repeatedly said that it would not prevent the vote from going ahead, and locals say the outbreak is being used as a pretext to disenfranchise them.
The CENI also cancelled the vote in the western city of Yumbi because of ethnic violence there last week that killed more than 100 people.
The election to replace Kabila, who has governed since replacing his assassinated father in 2001, was meant to take place in 2016 but has been repeatedly delayed.
That has triggered violent protests in which security forces killed dozens of people. It has also stoked militia violence in Congo’s eastern borderlands with Rwanda and Uganda as armed groups moved to exploit a perceived power vacuum.
Shadary is facing two main challengers in a field of 21 candidates: Felix Tshisekedi, the president of Congo’s largest opposition party, and Martin Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil manager and national lawmaker.
Following the attack on the Ebola centre, Jessica Ilunga, a health ministry spokeswoman, said that 17 of the patients had already tested negative for Ebola, while seven had not yet been tested.
Ms Ilunga said that three patients had already returned to the centre while health workers were in contact with 17 others to coordinate their return. Health officials have addresses and phone numbers for the remaining four, she added.
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