KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Mediators urged Congo's president and opposition parties Wednesday to reach an agreement before Christmas on a peaceful settlement to the country's political crisis, saying dozens already have been killed this week amid protests over the president's stay in power.
"Enough is enough," said Monseigneur Marcel Utembi with the team of Catholic church mediators. "A solution must be found as soon as possible by all political actors, but in particular by the government in order to reassure the Congolese people."
He also conveyed a message from Pope Francis following their meeting this week: "I am concerned by what is happening in your country, which I wish to visit at the opportune moment. I pray for the Congolese people, who need peace so much now."
President Joseph Kabila's mandate ended this week and he is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, but a court has ruled that he can remain in power until new elections, which have been indefinitely delayed. The vote once was set for November, but the ruling party now says it won't be held until 2018.
Anger over the delay has swept the country. A heavy military and police presence remained in the capital, Kinshasa, and across the country Wednesday. The remains of barricades littered the streets after protesters burned the headquarters of the ruling party on Tuesday, the first day after Kabila's mandate expired.
Reports of the death toll in the chaos varied. Human Rights Watch said security forces killed 26 people. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo said it had documented 19 people shot to death, 45 wounded and a "very high number" of arrests in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Matadi and Goma.
Congo's government said nine people had been killed in the capital: a police officer, two women hit by stray bullets and six men killed in looting. The national police spokesman, Col. Pierrot Mwanamputu, said eight others died in Lubumbashi, three in Matadi and two in Boma.
Mwanamputu also said 275 people had been detained since Kabila's mandate ended.
Amid the growing frustration, the Catholic church-mediated political talks resumed Wednesday after stalling over the weekend.
Utembi, the Monseigneur, stressed that the Catholic church is not willing to accept unwarranted delays or maneuvering, and warned that if a consensual decision on the political transition isn't reached by Christmas, "it will draw all the necessary consequences."
Finding common ground between the ruling majority and the opposition coalition will be difficult. While the ruling party insists that Kabila remain in power until the elections, the opposition says it does not recognize his authority anymore.
"We are trying to negotiate, but meanwhile Kabila is killing people. What we'll negotiate is the departure of Kabila from power, that's it," said Jean-Marc Kabund-a-Kabund, the secretary-general of the UDPS, the main opposition party.
The political impasse has fueled fears of widespread unrest in this vast Central African nation that has trillions of dollars' worth of natural resources but remains one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries.
Police said the heavy security presence will be maintained until the end of the holiday season.
Meanwhile, Kabila's Cabinet director defended the actions by security forces. "The opposition wanted to demonstrate to take power by force. What kind of state would not defend itself against such behavior?" Jean-Pierre Kambila said.
Signs of defiance continued Wednesday. Twenty activists in the eastern city of Goma gathered for a peaceful sit-in in front of the governor's office, holding signs reading "No one is above the law, bye bye Kabila" and "Protecting our constitution is not a crime." They were quickly arrested, residents said.
The head of the U.N. mission in Congo, Maman S. Sidikou, called on local authorities to end politically motivated detentions and asked that the U.N. be granted full access to detention centers.
The United States said it was "greatly disappointed by President Kabila's failure to organize elections and to state publicly that he will not run again." State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. condemned the latest violence and urged all sides to participate in Wednesday's talks "fully and in good faith."
This version corrects to say 20 activists were arrested in Goma, not 18 and a journalist.
AP writers Carley Petesch and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed.