The headquarters of the main opposition party and other political groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been destroyed by fire – leaving a number of people dead.
Empty petrol cans were reportedly found inside the burnt-out offices of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), which is leading protests demanding President Joseph Kabila step down.
The government denies its forces were involved but witnesses say armed men in uniform began the blaze.
“We were sleeping when men came and forced in the door … I saw men in military uniform,” said UDPS member Jean Toumba, describing the attack on the office in the capital Kinshasa at around 3 a.m on Tuesday morning.
“They threw petrol and set fire to the office. I ran out to hide.”
As the UN called on all sides to show restraint, the son of UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who lost against Kabila in a 2011 presidential run-off, inspected the damage.
“We won’t go on living with such barbarians,” Felix Tshisekedi said.
“The people are angry. The people want to put an end to this dictatorship.”
“For me, it is sad and shocking,” added a local man, Tresor.
“It is not what we want and it hurts. The police and the army should be apolitical but when they get involved in this kind of conflict, it is not at all good. For me, it is deplorable.”
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said: “It is completely false to say that the army was involved. That is propaganda and that sort of discourse increases the risk of civil war.”
Two days of violence have left dozens dead according to the opposition and Human Rights Watch.
HRW Africa researcher for the New York-based group, Ida Sawyer, said 17 people were killed overnight and on Tuesday, while 20 had been killed on Monday. Her statement was based on what she said were credible reports.
On Monday, the authorities put the death toll at 17, including three policemen.
Interior ministry spokesman Claude Pero Luwara has told Reuters that the death toll stands at 17 and said Human Rights Watch’s statement was a “typical” exaggeration by the group.
Monday’s protests followed moves to postpone the next presidential election, which is due in November.
Kabila is barred by constitutional term limits from running again for the presidency. Demonstrators
say the election delay is a manoeuvre to keep him in power – something his supporters deny.
UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva that nearly 200 people were believed to have been arrested on Monday and the UN received reports of excessive use of force by security forces.
With the unrest forcing schools to close and halting public transport in the sprawling riverside capital, the United Nations expressed fears the situation would worsen.
“I see this as a pivotal moment, there’s the possibility that the current political uncertainty could lead to serious political crisis. Well, that appears to be what’s happening now,” Colville said.
Air France said on Tuesday that it had cancelled its morning flight to Kinshasa amid the escalation of street violence.
The airline blamed “the deteriorating local security situation” for the cancellation of the flight and said it was following events in Kinshasa carefully.
Congo has not had a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.
Diplomats and donors fear a repeat of civil wars that killed millions of people between 1996 and 2003 and drew in armies from half a dozen countries.