A leading opposition candidate for president of Democratic Republic of Congo was questioned on Monday over government allegations of hiring mercenaries, a case that could halt his fledgling campaign in its tracks.
Police fired tear gas at more than 1,000 supporters of Moise Katumbi who advanced on the prosecutor general’s office, where he was being questioned, chanting “president!”.
Some entered the building and at least four were arrested, a Reuters witness said.
Katumbi’s supporters say the allegations are aimed at derailing his campaign to succeed President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled since 2001 but is barred from standing for a third term at elections set for November.
“The tricks continue in this trial of shame,” said Katumbi’s chief adviser, Salomon Idi Kalonda Della, on Twitter.
Katumbi has denied accusations made by the justice minister last week that he hired mercenaries including U.S. soldiers. The enquiry could lead to charges that carry a prison term and could also tie Katumbi in legal knots during the campaign.
Many Congolese people say Katumbi is the strongest opposition candidate to succeed Kabila, given his personal wealth and popularity as the former governor of Congo’s main copper-producing region. He also owns a soccer team.
Kabila is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term but has yet to announce his intentions. His ruling party has not named another candidate and the opposition says Kabila wants to delay the election to retain power.
Katumbi arrived at the prosecutor general’s office dressed in a white suit and accompanied by leaders of an opposition coalition that has backed his presidential bid.
He governed Katanga, the southeastern copper-mining heartland, from 2007 until last September when he quit Kabila’s ruling party, accusing it of plotting to keep the president in power beyond a two-term limit.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Congolese authorities have arrested at least 27 of Katumbi’s associates, including six employees and the two sons of an ally, since late last month. It called the arrests “targeted actions against a presidential aspirant and close supporters”.
The government denies Katumbi is being targeted for political reasons.