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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Election-related civil unrest hits Congo

KINSHASA, Congo - Gunfire and street brawls broke out Tuesday and a blaze swept through the supreme court building as authorities considered an ex-rebel leader's legal challenge to his loss in Congo's landmark presidential elections.

The latest election-related civil unrest to roil the capital of Kinshasa came when 200 supporters of runner-up Jean-Pierre Bemba massed outside the court while it considered his legal challenge to incumbent President Joseph Kabila's victory.

Fights broke out and sporadic gunfire was heard for about 45 minutes as U.N. peacekeepers sped to the scene in armored vehicles, then fired in the air to disperse the crowd. About 17,500 U.N. peacekeepers — its largest force in the world — are in Congo to maintain calm as the country attempts to move toward democracy.

Officials said gunmen in the crowd had fired on security forces, but no injuries were immediately reported.

"Armed men were mixed in with the civilians and shot at the police," Interior Minister Denis Kalume said.

At least two cars were set ablaze in the fighting and several offices in the two-story court building caught fire, along with furniture and documents. U.N. soldiers evacuated the building and firefighters worked through the afternoon to contain the flames.

A spokesman for Bemba's party, Moise Musangana, said it "condemns these acts of vandalism," adding that Bemba would have no reason to try to derail the court proceedings.

Government officials said they would evaluate the damage Wednesday before deciding how to continue with the court proceedings.

Last week, Kabila was declared the winner of a runoff vote to select Congo's first democratically elected leader after more than four decades of conflict and corrupt rule.

Meanwhile, officials in neighboring Republic of Congo said more than 2,000 people have arrived there in the past four days after fleeing election-related fighting in Congo. Many of the refugees were described as supporters of Kabila who were running from violent backers of Bemba.

When Bemba disputed the results of the first round of presidential voting in August, supporters of both men battled in Kinshasa for three days, leaving 23 people dead before U.N. peacekeepers restored order.

More clashes erupted in recent days as Bemba's camp first disputed the latest vote count, but the U.N. peacekeeping mission acted swiftly to negotiate a cease-fire. Three civilians and a soldier were killed during three hours of machine gunfire and mortar explosions around Bemba's house.

Bemba, who ruled his own private fiefdom in northern Congo during a 1998-2002 civil war and became one of four vice presidents in Kabila's postwar, transitional government, showed strong support in Kinshasa and western Congo but he gained only 42 percent of the overall vote, according to the Independent Electoral Commission. Kabila won 58 percent.

A coalition of some 50 parties supporting Bemba claim that votes counted at ballot stations Oct. 29, the day of the runoff, did not conform with the published results. The process was generally deemed fair by international election monitors.

Rich in cobalt, diamonds, copper, gold and other minerals, Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960 and was ruled for 32 years by Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who plundered the wealth, pocketing billions and doing little to develop the giant nation. Kabila's father, Laurent, helped depose Mobutu, but was then assassinated, leaving his son in power.

The younger Kabila signed peace accords to end Congo's war, which drew in the armies of at least six countries, and established the national-unity government he heads.

The new president will have to establish a unified army and regain control over lawless borderlands in the east, thousands of miles from Kinshasa, where rebels and militiamen accused of raping and pillaging residents collect their own taxes. Aid groups estimate Congo's wars and ongoing violence has left 4 million people dead, most through strife-related hunger and disease.

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