Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo say at least 17 people have died during protests calling for President Joseph Kabila to step down.
Officials say the dead include three policemen and 14 civilians. The violence began Monday morning after several thousand opposition supporters gathered in the pro-opposition neighborhood of Limete, and at other points around the capital Kinshasa.
The plan was to march around the city before a delegation of 50 opposition leaders delivered a petition to the electoral commission. The Kinshasa governor had authorized the plan.
Instead, the situation quickly became tense and chaotic. Opposition leaders say police intimidated their supporters, dispersing them as they gathered and blocking their approach to the central meeting place.
Witnesses say some protesters threw stones and set tires and vehicles on fire, while police fired tear gas and live rounds at the demonstrators.
A Congolese policeman patrols as opposition activists march to press President Joseph Kabila to step down in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa, Sept. 19, 2016.
At midday, riot police and soldiers were stationed on the road leading to the demonstration meeting place near the parliament building. VOA saw security forces stopping at least six people who looked to be foreign observers and loading them into vehicles.
An opposition leader told VOA by phone that he and others were penned in at one of their party headquarters and unable to leave.
The opposition accuses Kabila of trying to extend his time in office unconstitutionally by delaying elections. Supporters of the president deny this.
Monday marked the day that Congo's electoral process should have kicked off ahead of November polls. But the electoral commission now says the polls should be delayed until next year to give it more time to compile a new voter list.
U.S., French reaction
The United States said it is disappointed that Congo did not announce an election calendar Monday, and said it is deeply alarmed by the reports of violence. It threatened to impose additional sanctions on Congolese officials responsible for violence and repression.
State Department spokesman John Kirby also said the United States is "outraged and deeply disturbed by the physical obstruction and verbal aggression aimed at U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa Tom Perriello while he was departing from the Kinshasa airport on September 18."
Congolese opposition supporters chant slogans during a march to press President Joseph Kabila to step down in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa, Sept. 19, 2016.
Kirby said Perriello was in Kinshasa to encourage dialogue on the electoral process and said before he left he was "blocked and verbally threatened" in an area of Kinshasa's airport that is tightly secured by Congolese authorities.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the situation in Congo "very dangerous and extremely worrying." He told reporters at the United Nations in New York that if elections are "delayed endlessly, that means that Kabila intends to stay in power." He said that is "a situation that is not acceptable."
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Ban condemns the violence in Congo and urges Congolese national security forces to exercise maximum restraint in their response to protests.
Kabila took power in 2001 after his father was assassinated and has since won two elections.
A smaller Congolese opposition group has been meeting with the government in an attempt to organize a schedule for elections, but the main opposition has refused to participate in the talks.