The U.N. Security Council condemned violence during nationwide protests in Congo last month against President Joseph Kabila's extended rule and called on all parties Wednesday to ensure that a long-delayed presidential election takes place Dec. 23.
Kabila's mandate ended in December 2016 and he agreed to set an election by the end of 2017, but Congo's election commission said the vote couldn't be held until the end of this year.
The council said in a statement after an open meeting and closed consultations that all provisions of Congo's Dec. 31, 2016, election agreement must be carried out, including the release of all remaining political prisoners. It noted the release of 25 political prisoners so far.
The top U.N. envoy for Congo, Leila Zerrougui, warned the council of the risk of violence in the run-up to the election.
"A failure to generate confidence in the full and faithful implementation of the Dec. 31 agreement will only serve to heighten political tensions, and to fuel the risks of inciting violence for political ends,'' she said.
Zerrougui called the humanitarian situation in Congo "shocking,'' saying the number of people displaced from their homes who need assistance has reached 4.5 million, the highest number in Africa. Hundreds of thousands more have sought refuge in neighboring countries, she said.
"Over 7.7 million people face severe food insecurity throughout the country,'' she said. "More than 2 million children are severely malnourished and require urgent assistance,'' but relief efforts are hampered because of "critically low levels of funding.''
While attention has been focused on the electoral process, Zerrougui said the security situation in Congo has continued to deteriorate, bringing ``increased risks for renewed instability in many parts of the country.''
In recent months, anti-government protests have also led to violent and deadly responses from Kabila's security forces.
Zerrougui criticized Congolese security forces, saying they engaged in "the disproportionate use of force'' during peaceful protests on Dec. 31, Jan. 21 and Feb. 25.
The Security Council condemned the violence used during the Feb. 25 nationwide protests and expressed regret at the loss of life. Organizers said security forces fatally shot at least four people and wounded dozens more.
The council also urged Congo authorities "to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially the right of peaceful assembly, and to exercise maximum restraint in their response to protests.''