Friday, March 23, 2007

DRC Army Regains Control of Kinshasa After Bemba's Forces Flee

Army regains control of Kinshasa

Government troops have recaptured most of the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, Kinshasa, after a second day of gun battles with militiamen.

Most of the men loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba, who lost presidential polls last year, have fled the business district.

Eyewitnesses say dozens of bodies, riddled with bullet wounds, have been moved from the streets and civilians have been ordered to stay indoors.

Earlier, an arrest warrant was issued for Mr Bemba on grounds of treason.

He has taken refuge in the South African embassy compound and has denied plotting military action to overthrow President Joseph Kabila.

A deadline for Mr Bemba's guards to disarm expired this week but he wants additional security guarantees before they lay down their weapons.

Last year's election - the first free poll in four decades - passed off peacefully, raising hopes of an end to years of conflict and mismanagement.


The BBC's Arnaud Zajtman in Kinshasa says sporadic shooting can still be heard but government soldiers have taken control of the city's business centre.

They have used plastic chairs and bricks to set up roadblocks in the capital.

Several supermarkets, shops and private houses have also been looted by the government troops, our reporter says.

Mr Bemba's guards have been seen running away, abandoning their uniforms and surrendering to UN peacekeepers.

A doctor in charge at Kinshasa's hospital told the BBC that 32 people were being treated for gunshots wounds.

Other sources report 60 bodies have been brought to the hospital, which tallies with eyewitness accounts, our correspondent says.

'Life in danger'

Mr Bemba has immunity as a senator but the government says this may be stripped.

South Africa's deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad urged all sides to stop fighting but did not say whether the former rebel leader would be handed over to the Congolese authorities.

"Bemba committed treason in using the armed forces for his own ends," said Congolese government spokesman Toussaint Tshilombo.

But Mr Bemba denied trying to oust Mr Kabila and said his house had been attacked four times.

"I feel they want to kill me," he told the BBC. He has called for negotiations with the government about his security arrangements.

As a former vice-president in the transitional government, he is entitled to 15 policemen for his protection.

Under another agreement signed ahead of the election, the winner of the presidential poll is committed to guarantee the loser's security.

But the country's information minister said that since the government was democratically elected last year, there was no reason for fresh talks.

President Joseph Kabila won 58% of the vote compared to Mr Bemba's 42% in an election run-off last October.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/03/23 20:16:32 GMT

Echoes of the Past As Bemba Guards Fight Government Forces

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
March 23, 2007

The international community has called for a ceasefire and dialogue in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where guards of the former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba clashed for the second day on Friday with government forces in the capital, Kinshasa.

Tension gripped Kinshasa throughout Thursday night, prompting some residents to flee the city centre. "A tank of the national army is circulating not far from here and shooting," a resident of Barumbu commune said. "We can see, through the window, guards of Bemba and the army shooting at each other."

In separate statements, the United Nations, which has over 18,000 peacekeepers and other officials in the DRC, and the European Union called for an immediate ceasefire. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN Security Council and the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC condemned the fighting.

"The members of the Security Council are particularly concerned about the spillover of the violence on to the civilian population, including children," Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo of South Africa, which holds the rotating Council presidency for March, said.

Javier Solana, the European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, called on the Congolese parties to resolve their differences through dialogue.

"I am following with grave concern the violent clashes taking place in Kinshasa," Solana said. "The international community and the European Union in particular will not allow democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a major success for the entire African continent, to be compromised."

Witnesses said the clashes, which were sparked off by an attempt by government forces to disarm Bemba's guards, were concentrated around the city centre, the administrative and commercial centres and the area where foreign embassies are located. They claimed that several bodies were lying on the streets, while scores of people had been injured.

Government spokesman and information minister, Toussaint Tshilombo, told national television that Bemba had fled to a foreign embassy - a claim later confirmed by the South African embassy. "Bemba came yesterday saying that he did not benefit any more from the protection of his residence. He has not asked for asylum and is here temporarily," an embassy official, Kelly Pedro, said.

As the fighting continued, the government issued an arrest warrant for Bemba. "He has committed infractions such as having entertained militias, looting and high treason," DRC general prosecutor, Tshimanga Mukenda, said. The judiciary, he added, would ask for a withdrawal of the immunity that Bemba enjoyed as a member of parliament, so that he could be arrested.

In neighbouring Congo, residents of the capital Brazzaville braced for a possible influx of civilians from Kinshasa. "We are taking measures to face the problem," the director of the humanitarian section in the Congolese Ministry of Cooperation, Humanitarian Action and Solidarity, Clément Esséké, said.

Brazzaville is across the Congo River from Kinshasa. "When Kinshasa moves, Brazzaville coughs," said a local resident, Dieudonné Moussala.

Ever since Bemba disputed the results of the 29 October run-off presidential election which gave the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, 58.05 percent of the vote, leaving him 41.95 percent, Kinshasa has been living in fear that clashes could recur between Bemba's guards and government forces.

This month, tension rose after Bemba refused a government directive to remove his men and accept police guards.

The elections in DRC, the first in 40 years, were seen as the best opportunity to return peace to the war-ravaged country and encourage the return home of an estimated 1.2 million displaced Congolese as well as 410,000 refugees in neighbouring countries.

But analysts say until Kabila's government can contain the security situation, there is no hope of addressing the nation's other ills. Once the security situation is under control, the government can turn its full attention to revamping health facilities, electricity, water, education and infrastructure.

On Friday, the Kinshasa Governor, André Kimbuta, went on radio to call for calm. "The elements of the guard of Bemba are falling apart and have been fleeing the city. Some have hidden and changed their uniform for civilian outfits," he said. "The regular army has taken control of two residencies of Bemba."

This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the Pan-African News Wire

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