November 11 2006
By David Lewis
Kinshasa - Heavy gunfire and blasts rang out in Congo's capital on Saturday in new clashes between the forces of contenders in historic elections meant to end a decade of war, and the government threatened to send in the army.
"If this continues the army will have to intervene to restore order," Interior Minister Denis Kalume said.
Full results have not yet been published, but Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba's camp has alleged systematic cheating and said on Saturday it had detected massive fraud affecting 1 million votes in the October 29 run-off against President Joseph Kabila.
Shooting started mid-morning around Bemba's office on Kinshasa's main boulevard, where Bemba's supporters have staged a series of small demonstrations in recent days.
"The police were trying to disperse the youths and when they did they found armed men behind them. We are calling on the vice-president to restore order, or we will send in the security forces," Kalume said.
Some of Bemba's troops said they were fighting police and Kabila's loyalist Republican Guard, although Kalume said the elite force had not been deployed.
European and United Nations peacekeepers moved around the area.
Both forces have stepped up patrols and fortified their positions in Kinshasa in the past few weeks, hoping to avoid a repetition of August violence when Bemba's and Kabila's private armies fought fierce street battles here.
Some civilians fled the area on foot, while hundreds of Bemba's soldiers took up positions in ditches either side of the boulevard, where some tyres lay burning.
Kinshasa 's population overwhelmingly supports Bemba, who speaks the same Lingala tongue as the western swathe of Congo, while Kabila speaks the Swahili of the east.
Partial results published by the electoral commission and compiled by diplomats and elections experts show the Kabila, already the favourite, leading with around 60 percent of votes.
But with the vote closer than expected, electoral monitors say any alleged irregularities take on greater importance.
Bemba's men moved heavy machine guns and mortar tubes from the office compound, which they have been using as a base.
Carrying assault rifles or rocket propelled grenade launchers, some wrapped lengths of colourful fabric around their loins before heading into a cemetery across the boulevard from where heavy gunfire was heard.
Comrades dragged at least one fighter with apparent gunshot wounds back into Bemba's compound, a Reuters reporter saw.
"The police started shooting to disperse youths who had gathered to support us," Bemba's campaign manager Fidel Babala said.
Bemba's political coalition alleged systematic cheating in the election count this week, raising fears of more trouble.
"We are waiting for it to calm so we can denounce new fraud. It involves one million votes," Babala said.
French troops sent to Kinshasa as part of a European Union force to prevent violence around the election cruised around the area in a handful of open jeeps.
UN peacekeepers in white armoured personnel carriers, part of the world body's biggest peace force, manned gun posts on street corners where sandbag defences have sprung up in recent weeks as tension has mounted ahead of the poll results.