Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bemba militia clash with troops in Congo capital

KINSHASA, March 22 (Reuters) - Gunfire and explosions rocked Kinshasa on Thursday as armed followers of a former rebel leader fought government troops, in the first clashes in Democratic Republic of Congo's capital since landmark elections last year. The shooting broke out after the personal militia of defeated presidential contender Jean-Pierre Bemba defied a government order last week to disband following landmark elections in 2006. A Reuters witness heard frequent fire from small arms, heavy machineguns and rocket propelled grenades (RPG) in the neighbourhood around the Supreme Court in Kinshasa's administrative district, close to one of Bemba's residences. Armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, patrolled the streets as the gunfights raged, but did not intervene. "We are moving our APCs to the area," U.N. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Didier Rancher told Reuters, but declined further comment. MONUC has agreements to evacuate certain individuals, such as senior diplomats and their families, in the event of fighting in Kinshasa. The clashes were the first in the sprawling riverside capital, a stronghold of Bemba's support, since the elections which were meant to draw a line under a 1998-2003 war that killed nearly 4 million people, mainly through hunger and disease. Dozens of people were killed last year in fighting between Bemba's forces and President Joseph Kabila's presidential guard before an October second-round run-off between the two men. Kabila, who took office when his father was assassinated in 2001 and won last year's polls, has ordered Bemba to slash his security detail to just 12 police officers. The former rebel's supporters say he has the right to "an appropriate personal guard" under a U.N.-brokered deal signed before October's presidential runoff. The head of the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, William Swing, had been due to meet Kabila on Thursday to try to defuse the crisis. "There is a lot still going on behind the scenes," a Western diplomat told Reuters before the clashes. "Both sides are very, very stubborn. I don't see where a breakthrough will come from." Swing met Bemba and Congolese Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga on Wednesday. Before the fighting erupted, a senior MONUC official said "The situation is very tense. The Congolese people don't want any more blood, this situation has a political solution ... We are pushing for that."

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