19/12/2016 19:35 SAST | Updated 19/12/2016 19:37 SAST

South African Soldier Killed In Congo Firefight

Two South African soldiers were wounded, one critically, in an early morning assault by Mai Mai guerrillas.

Thomas Mukoya / Reuters
A Congolese opposition party supporter displays a red card against President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo on 19 December 2016.

A South African soldier on a United Nations mission in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) was killed in a rebel attack on their positions on Monday, the final day of President Joseph Kabila's mandated time in office, Pretoria said.

Two South African soldiers were wounded, one critically, in the early morning assault by Mai Mai guerrillas, the South African military said in a statement. Four militiamen were killed in the firefight and two were captured, it added.

SANDF spokesperson Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga told TimesLive that five rebels and a soldier were killed in a gunfight that broke out when members of the Mai Mai and Allied Democratic Forces groups attacked the SANDF position near Butembu around 6.30am.

"The SANDF members‚ as part of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Congo‚ engaged in a firefight with the attackers and repelled the attack‚" Mabanga said.

"After a lengthy stand-off the attackers fled and during consolidation of the scene it was established that four Mai Mai rebels were killed and two captured."

Details concerning the soldier would be released once their next-of-kin had been informed.

On Monday evening Mabanga told the Huffington Post that the seriously injured soldier was still in D.R.C. "He was still being treated on that side. The situation didn't warrant an evacuation," said Mabanga. The other had minor injuries and was also treated.

Mabanga said South Africa had a battalion in the Monusco group, which was about 800 to 1000 soldiers.

Speaking on the incident, local officials said militia fighters raided a jail in eastern Congo's Butembo trying to free prisoners, triggering clashes that killed the South African U.N. peacekeeper, a police officer and five attackers.

"They (the militia) want to take advantage of the day," activist Fabrice Kakubuzi told Reuters as authorities said they had fought off the assault.

Opposition activists have accused Kabila of trying to cling to power by letting his term run out without an election in place to choose a successor.

"Kabila's mandate finishes at 1159 ... Tomorrow (Tuesday) it will be chaos," said 21-year-old graduate Hugue Ilunga as dozens of soldiers deployed nearby in the capital, Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold of 12 million people.

Protestors gather

Protesters have gathered in capital and at least one other city, defying a ban on demonstrations against the president's plans to stay in office past the end of his term on Monday.

Security forces blocked access to Kinshasa University, facing off against groups waving red cards telling President Joseph Kabila to go, as time ticked down to the official close of his mandate at midnight.

Shops shut in other parts of the city, where streets were mostly empty.

At least 41 protesters were arrested in the eastern city of Goma, the U.N. human rights office in Congo said. Police said nine opposition demonstrators were detained for violating the protest ban.

'Flirtation with disaster'

The government and elections officials have blamed logistical and financial problems for the delay in the vote, currently scheduled for April 2018.

Some opposition leaders have agreed Kabila can remain in office until that date. The constitutional court has also ruled that Kabila, leader since his father was assassinated in 2001, can stay on.

But the main opposition bloc rejects the deal as a ploy, though it said it would not call protests. Talks mediated by the Catholic church failed to reach a compromise.

The government has blocked most social media and outlawed protests in Kinshasa, raising fears of more violence in a nation that has been plagued by war and instability for two decades since the fall of kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko.

Congo has not seen a peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.

Diplomats fear any escalation could trigger a conflict like the 1996 to 2003 wars that killed millions, sucked in neighbouring armies and saw armed groups clash over Congo's mineral wealth and use mass rape as a strategic weapon.