DR Congo

DRC: Echoes of the past as Bemba guards fight government forces

KINSHASA, 23 March 2007 (IRIN) - 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."