A suicide bomber attacked a restaurant and bar in Beni on Christmas Day, killing at least six people in the eastern Congolese town where Islamic extremists are known to be active.
Heavy gunfire rang out shortly after the bomb went off, with panicked crowds fleeing the town’s hub.
Gen Sylvain Ekenge, spokesperson for the governor of North Kivu, said security guards had blocked the bomber from entering the crowded bar and so the person detonated the explosives at the entrance.
“We call on people to remain vigilant and to avoid crowded areas during the holiday season,” he said. “In the city and territory of Beni, it is difficult, in these times, to know who is who.”
Rachel Magali had been at the restaurant-bar for about three hours with her sister-in-law and several others when she heard a loud noise outside.
“Suddenly we saw black smoke surrounding the bar and people started to cry,” she told the Associated Press. “We rushed to the exit where I saw people lying down. There were green plastic chairs scattered everywhere and I also saw heads and arms no longer attached. It was really horrible.”
Among the dead were two children, according to Mayor Narcisse Muteba, who is also a police colonel. At least 13 other people were wounded and taken to a local hospital.
“Investigations are under way to find the perpetrators of this terrorist attack,” he told AP.
The town has long been targeted by rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group that traces its origins to neighbouring Uganda. But an Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for two explosions in Beni in June, deepening fears that religious extremism has taken hold there too.
Those explosions included the first known suicide bombing in eastern Congo, a Ugandan man who blew himself up outside a bar.
The Islamist group’s Central Africa province later said that the suicide bomber was targeting Christians. The other explosion that day went off inside a Catholic church, wounding two people.
Residents of the town have repeatedly expressed anger over the ongoing insecurity despite an army offensive and the presence of UN peacekeepers in Beni.
In recent years, the town has also suffered an Ebola epidemic and has seen several smaller outbreaks of the disease.