Kinshasa - Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo were on Tuesday on the offensive against youth gangs in the capital, long accused of robbing, beating up and even murdering residents, police said.
"Operation Likofi ]"punch" in Lingala] began in Kinshasa on 15 November and will end on 15 February," police colonel and spokesperson Pierre Mwana Mputu told AFP. "We have mapped out the hotbeds of criminal activity."
The youths known as "kuluna" roam the streets in packs, often under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They violently snatch bags, jewellery and mobile phones. Victims who resist face being clubbed or hacked with machetes. Several have been killed.
"The threat has grown in scale. It's as if there was no state... it pleased the supreme authority [President Joseph Kabila] to instruct the police to eradicate this phenomenon... and clean up the town," Mwana Mputu said.
Most people in Kinshasa, a city of some 10 million, live in dire poverty. But the authorities have urged them to help by denouncing gang members, who include the children of police officers and soldiers, several residents told AFP.
On the streets, police officers - some of them masked - have been arresting many young bandits, who will be sent before magistrates especially assigned to the task. State television has shown footages of dozens of youths, including women, handcuffed with bands of cloth.
"Let us hope that this lasts, because in Kinshasa the authorities often don't go through with their missions to the end," a women resident said.
"This is a really good idea. The kuluna sometimes kill pregnant women for no reason. They even wreck the stalls of people selling bread and fritters," she added.
The more notorious gang leaders have sought to evade the police crackdown by disguising themselves, locals said.
Some residents claimed that police officers have carried out several summary executions of youths, sometimes in front of the homes of the alleged gang members. Human rights organisations told AFP that they had received reports of such killings, without being able to confirm them.
Mwana Mputu denied the allegations and said that if any breaches of regulations came to the notice of authorities, these would be punished.