Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Despite Appeals for Calm Throughout Africa, Supporters of Former Rebel Attack Supreme Court Over Election Results

Wednesday November 22, 8:04 AM

Violence and arson attack mark DR Congo vote protests

Backers of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the defeated presidential candidate in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ran riot at Kinshasa's Supreme Court before UN peacekeeping soldiers halted the violence.

During disturbances that erupted while Supreme Court judges were hearing Bemba's claim of alleged electoral fraud in favour of the incumbent President Joseph Kabila, part of the court was set ablaze and the premises had to be evacuated.

The unrest began when about 200 Bemba supporters gathered outside the court buildings and their protest escalated into clashes with Congolese riot police and an armoured UN contingent.

At one stage before UN troops restored order, armed men guarding the former rebel leader's residence in the same district of Kinshasa as the Supreme Court fired on riot police, but no casualties have been reported. Two vehicles were burned, including a police truck, AFP journalists said.

Late Tuesday, the governor of Kinshasa warned that the Congolese army would take the place of the police if there were any new outbreaks of armed violence.

Speaking on national television, Admiral Baudouin Liwanga said "it won't be the national police anymore who intervene but rather units of the DRC armed forces charged with defending the city of Kinshasa who will restore order."

The governor also asked the United Nations Mission in DRC (MONUC) and the European Union force EUFOR "to proceed without delay in disarming all these elements which use their arms in the city against the population."

The trouble on Tuesday began at around 11:00 am (1000 GMT), when police using tear gas tried to disperse Bemba supporters at the courthouse. Protesters fled towards the vice president's residence, followed by police who then came under fire from armed men guarding it.

The riot police fled in turn, opening the way for the demonstrators to break into the Supreme Court, where they sacked several offices, burned down an annex and nearby buildings housing district administrative offices.

With police and UN troops appearing to be absent, the protesters started a blaze that reached the main building before UN firefighters arrived to help the local fire brigade, which was short of water, extinguish the flames.

By about 1:30 pm, reinforcements from a UN armoured battalion had put an end to the trouble. The troops fired warning shots with the machine-guns on their vehicles after being stoned by about 50 demonstrators.

An investigating team of officials from the public prosecutor's office, UN staff and different police units arrived on the scene later. They were due to hand in a report on Wednesday, one of them told AFP, declining to give details.

The interior minister, General Denis Kalume, and the DRC army and police chiefs also visited the scene, but refused to comment.

The court hearing on Bemba's case was suspended after his lawyers protested at the composition of the legal panel and the presiding judge protested at the violence outside.

"We can't work in this climate of insecurity," Judge Kalonda Kele told those present. About 100 judges, lawyers and journalists were stuck inside the court for about 45 minutes during the violence.

MONUC said that 150 Uruguayan UN soldiers reinforced "security already in place around the Supreme Court and stabilised the situation, while elements of the (UN) integrated police unit and MONUC security services successfully carried out the evacuation and protection of people who were in the building".

"We also intervened to stop Bemba's people getting out" onto the streets, UN chief of staff General Christian Houdet told AFP.

The presence in central Kinshasa of Bemba's guard of about 1,000 men has been a concern throughout the electoral period. The polls conclude a three-year transition to democracy under Kabila's interim government, which includes his foes during a 1998-2003 war that wracked the country.

Once all the protesters had gone, traffic picked up and Congolese police were back on patrol around the court.

Bemba's political aides said that his side was not responsible for the shots fired at police, in a televised message scrolling across the screen on Canal Kin TV, one of the stations he owns.

The MONUC mission, which consists of 17,600 personnel deployed across the vast central African country, called for calm in a statement regretting "the new outbreak of violence and unjustified vandalism".

Bemba lodged his case, which notably concerned votes by people outside their constituencies, on Saturday, within the three days allowed for a challenge, and the Supreme Court then had a week to consider it.

Congolese and foreign poll observers are in no doubt that Kabila -- who took just over 58 percent of the votes to nearly 42 percent for Bemba -- has won the election by a margin that makes the result fair.

Congo court burnt in poll protest

The Democratic Republic of Congo's Supreme Court has been set on fire during protests over alleged fraud in the presidential run-off.

Supporters of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the ex-rebel leader who says he was cheated of victory, clashed with police.

Police used tear gas and UN peacekeepers fired shots in the air, with two vehicles burnt by protesters.

The violence led the Supreme Court to suspend its hearing into Mr Bemba's claims he was cheated of victory.

Mr Bemba's party has condemned what it called "acts of vandalism" against the court, and said it would have no reason to try to derail court proceedings.

President Joseph Kabila was last week declared the winner, with 58% of the vote against 42% for Mr Bemba.

The elections are supposed to draw a line under a five-year conflict in which some four million people died.

Extra troops

Black-robed judges fled the court, as documents and furniture caught fire.

Some election material was damaged.

Fire-fighters arrived to tackle the blaze, which damaged part of the building in the capital, Kinshasa.

The BBC's Arnaud Zajtman in Kinshasa says police fired tear gas, as several hundred supporters of Mr Bemba first approached the building.

Interior Minister Denis Kalume said some of the protesters were carrying weapons and fired at the police.

Our correspondent says the police ran away and Mr Bemba's supporters then set two vehicles on fire, including one belonging to European Union peacekeepers.

UN troops fired shots in the air to disperse the protesters.

"We have sent additional troops in to secure the situation," said UN spokesman Kemal Saiki.

There are no reports of any casualties.

After the first round results were declared in August, security forces loyal to the two men clashed in Kinshasa, leaving at least 23 people dead.

The world's biggest peacekeeping force - some 17,000 men - is in DR Congo to prevent further unrest.

Election observers have said the irregularities were not on a large enough scale to overturn Mr Kabila's lead.

The results showed a regional divide, with Mr Bemba gaining most votes in the Lingala-speaking west, including Kinshasa, while Mr Kabila won by a landslide in the Swahili-speaking east.

The election was organised under the terms of a 2002 peace deal to end the conflict, which drew in the armies of nine other African countries.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/11/21 22:53:21 GMT

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