Sun, Aug 13, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Six arrested over vote-tampering charges in Congo

AP , KINSHASA

Authorities arrested six electoral workers on Friday accused of tampering with the count after Congo's historic elections, officials said, as over a dozen minor candidates cried fraud and demanded fresh balloting across the country.

Nineteen of the 33 candidates on the ballot in the July 30 elections have banded together to denounce the vote as fraudulent and called on Friday for a fresh vote, according to a spokesman for the bloc, Roger Lumbala.

The 19 include none of the candidates that have so far emerged among the frontrunners as counting picks up speed nearly two weeks after Congo's first elections in over 40 years.

With 2.1 million counted of about 20 million votes cast, President Joseph Kabila leads Jean-Pierre Bemba, former rebel leader and current vice president in a transitional administration. Kabila had 48 percent of votes tallied to Bemba's 20 percent.

The specter of Congo's population rejecting the vote worries foreign diplomats, who say the elections' legitimacy is crucial to swinging Congolese behind their first democratic leader since 1961.

The candidates' cries of fraud and the arrest of the six electoral workers will chip away voters' trust. Many international observers noted irregularities in the voting and protracted and chaotic counting, but none so far considered serious enough to affect the outcome.

The six workers arrested at a central collection point were altering tally sheets, said an electoral commission spokesman, Dieudonne Mirimo. Authorities were in possession of the sheets, he said.

Delion Kimbulumpu, another spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, said the fact they had been caught was reassuring.

"This proves the elections are credible," he said. "We really appreciate the vigilance at the local compilation centers. This confirms that the mechanisms in place are working."

After a slow start to the count-ing, the tallying process appears to be gaining momentum. Electoral officials said the major sticking point was collecting the voting slips from the tens of thousands of polling stations across Congo, a country the size of Western Europe.

Most of the voting papers have now been collected, some making their way to 62 aggregation points countrywide in dugout fishing canoes and atop villagers' heads, said Desire Molekela, another electoral commission spokesman.

One election observer said she was happier with how vote counting is proceeding.

"Conditions are much better, but they're still not ideal. Many observers have left, but those who remain are able to do their jobs properly," said Human Rights Watch's Anneke Van Woudenberg, one of nearly 2,000 international observers in Congo for the election and vote count.

She originally criticized the vote counting process as disorderly but said on Friday that "some order has come to the process after the initial chaos."

In all, 80 percent of Congo's 25 million registered voters -- some 20 million people -- cast ballots in the July 30 presidential and legislative election.

A preliminary countrywide tally was expected to be announced next Sunday, and a final tally on Aug. 31.

The results so far reflect a regional split, with Kabila, as expected, doing best in the east, where he was born. Bemba was doing well in western provinces. Bemba was expected to do particularly well in Kinshasa, the capital, but results from that western city had not yet been compiled.

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