Two dozen patients fled an Ebola treatment center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Thursday after protesters ransacked the facility as part of ongoing demonstrations against this coming weekend’s presidential election.
The chaos in the eastern city of Beni unfolded a day after the country’s election commission announced that it was suspending voting in the area because of an Ebola outbreak and militia violence.
Seventeen of the 24 who escaped subsequently tested negative for Ebola while seven have not yet been screened, a health ministry spokesperson told Reuters. Three of those from the latter group reportedly have returned to the facility and officials are trying to track down the rest.
Ambulances were seen racing towards the facility after the attack.
The Ebola outbreak that has spread around the region since August is believed to have killed more than 350 people to date.
The government agency coordinating the response to the virus in Beni also was targeted Thursday by protesters who tried to “force the door of the center” before being held back by U.N. peacekeepers, according to Reuters.
“They were chanting songs hostile to the government and demanding elections. They threw projectiles,” Aruna Abedi, the deputy director of the Ebola response, said.
Local politicians suspect the decision to omit Beni and other cities from Sunday’s vote is a scheme to help shift the vote toward candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is outgoing President Joseph Kabila’s favored successor.
The region reportedly opposes Kabila, who has been leading Congo since 2001 following his father’s assassination.
The presidential election was supposed to be held in 2016, but it has been repeatedly delayed, sparking deadly clashes between residents and security forces -- and violence carried out by armed groups.
Rebel attacks in Beni alone have left more than 1,500 dead over the past four years, according to the Associated Press.