A suicide bomber has struck a restaurant in the city of Beni in the eastern Congo, killing at least six people as well as himself, officials say.
The Christmas Day attack marks the latest violence in a region where Congolese and Ugandan forces have launched a campaign against Islamist insurgents.
“The suicide bomber, prevented by security guards from entering a crowded bar, activated the bomb at the entrance,” regional governor’s spokesman General Ekenge Sylvain said in a statement.
Six people died in the blast and 14 were injured, including two local officials, he said.
Sylvain said that insurgents from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group aligned with Islamic State, had activated a “sleeper cell” in Beni to target citizens, but he did not provide evidence connecting them to the explosion.
The ADF has not immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Congo and neighbouring Uganda launched a military campaign in the area at the end of November against the ADF. Officials have previously blamed the group for bombings in the region.
Beni’s mayor, Narcisse Muteba Kashale, earlier told local radio that the bomb exploded in the city centre and issued the plea, “For safety, I’m asking the population to stay home.”
A Reuters journalist nearby said he heard an explosion around 7pm, just after the conclusion of a Catholic Mass near the city’s main road. After that came the sounds of gunshots.
Police spokesman Nasson Murara said that officers fired live rounds to disperse an angry crowd that attempted to bar investigators from accessing the scene of the explosion. No one was injured, he said.
Images shared on social media showed dozens of green chairs scattered across a road, some melted or smouldering. At least four bodies, including that of a small girl, could be seen among the wreckage.
Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the images.
Residents of the town have repeatedly expressed anger over the ongoing insecurity despite an army offensive and the presence of UN peacekeepers in Beni.
The joint Congolese and Ugandan campaign, launched on November 30, had planned to target four ADF camps, including two in the Beni area, a Ugandan general said earlier this month.
Beni was rocked by two explosions in June at a Catholic church and at a busy intersection. No one was killed in either blast except the suspected bomber, who was killed by the second explosion.