Tue, Aug 29, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Conflict testing Congo's fragile democracy


Walls plastered with campaign posters from Congo's historic elections are newly peppered with bullet holes. Tank fire has smashed buildings just down bloodstained streets from voting centers in the war-battered capital.

Balloting was meant to bring a final closure to the Central African nation's 1996-2002 conflict, but fighting between the two candidates' army supporters is raising concerns that old wounds are being aggravated.

In the wake of the capital's worst violence in years, some Congolese wonder if the forces unleashed by a democratic power struggle can be channeled peacefully.

"I am worried about the future of our country," said Jose Munoki, 53, a government worker. "The fighting shows our politicians only want democracy as long as they retain power."

President Joseph Kabila will face ex-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, a vice president in Kabila's national unity government, in an Oct. 29 runoff vote.

While the July 30 vote went peacefully, the announcement of first-round results on Sunday sparked fighting between Kabila's army loyalists and those supporting Bemba.

Kabila had by far the largest vote, about 45 percent of ballots cast, but he needed to get over 50 percent to avoid the runoff. Bemba had 20 percent.

While Kabila's and Bemba's camps trade accusations about who started the fighting, the battle raged for three days in Kinshasa, sending war-wary citizens behind closed doors and emptying streets and stores of taxis and shoppers.

Yesterday, Kabila's fighters attacked Bemba's home as theecandidate met inside with top international diplomats.

Members of the UN's 17,500-strong peacekeeping force and those from a supplementary 1,000-troop EU rapid-reaction force evacuated the diplomats, including the UN mission head, William Swing.

Kabila's loyalists -- members of his red beret-wearing special presidential guards -- used tanks and heavy machine guns against Bemba's army supporters, who battled back with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

The fighters only returned to barracks after the UN brokered a ceasefire and Kabila and Bemba issued orders to stop fighting.

In the end, 31 people were killed, including many civilians, and 44-year old Bemba was under protection by the UN. It was the worst violence to hit Kinshasa since the end to the war was negotiated in 2002.

Kabila, 35, had gained much popular support for having negotiated the peace deals four years ago and bringing his foes into a power-sharing government that's arranging the elections, with help from the UN and other international partners.

But many Congolese say the roots of the latest battle lay in the peace deals themselves.

Under the accords, Kabila, Bemba and others were allowed to keep hundreds of loyalists as their personal guards. While the soldiers are officially part of the military, they remain loyal to their wartime leaders and are ardent enemies, even as their bosses campaign for electoral support.

Some observers fear the rival units will fight again -- and the next time the battle may inflame a civilian population unaccustomed to channeling their anger into a democratic process.

"There is certainly the possibility of a flare-up during the second round, and those who want to avoid that have a lot of work ahead of them," said Herbert Brown, head of Congo's branch of the National Democratic Institute, a US-based organization aiding the country's transition to democracy.

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