Street clashes between security forces and demonstrators opposed to President Joseph Kabila left at least 17 dead in Congo's capital Monday in a dramatic sign of mounting tensions after officials sought to delay the upcoming election until next year.
Some view a delay as a way for Kabila to prolong his rule beyond the end of his mandate in late December, as he is able to stay in power if there is no election to choose a successor.
"Today is a warning. He must leave by December," protester Salomon Kaba said.
Protesters threw stones and set tires and vehicles ablaze, according to witnesses. Interior Minister Evariste Boshab confirmed that three police officers were among the dead, including one who was burned alive.
An Associated Press photographer saw at least four civilian bodies with gunshot wounds in the streets.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende called the demonstrations a pre-meditated criminal act.
"This wasn't a demonstration at all but an attempt to unleash civil war in the city of Kinshasa," he said. "The authorities decided to put an end to the protest and disperse it."
Eva Mwakasa, a member of the opposition coalition La Dynamique, said it was difficult to give a death toll as protesters had been dispersed by tear gas.
For months, observers have questioned whether Congo could hold the presidential vote as scheduled on Nov. 27. The country's electoral commission had indicated that the voter list would not be formalized before July 2017.
Over the weekend, the commission made an official request to the country's constitutional court for a delay of the vote.
Kabila, who came to power after his father's assassination in 2001, has yet to announce whether he will pursue another term in office, though the constitution prohibits it.
The violence comes amid growing fears that the delay could lead to prolonged unrest in Congo, a nation as vast in size as Western Europe. The mineral-rich but largely impoverished country suffered back-to-back civil wars until 2003, and previous instability has drawn in armies from neighboring countries.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence and urged "all concerned political leaders and their supporters to refrain from any further violence."
He called on authorities to ensure that security forces exercise maximum restraint while responding to protests, and for political leaders to address their differences "peacefully and through dialogue."
While the ruling party has held talks as part of a national dialogue, many of the top opposition figures have not taken part. In recent days, the ruling party has floated the idea of a unity government with opposition members until the next elections, though the proposal would keep Kabila in charge during that period.
Demonstrations also have erupted outside the capital. Human Rights Watch said police fired live bullets Friday in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi. Their report released Sunday also described a series of arrests targeting members of the opposition in recent days.
"The decisions President Kabila and his government will make in the coming weeks can make all the difference for Congo's future," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This is a critical opportunity for the country to strengthen democracy, the rule of law and human rights for its own future and for the entire region."