Opposition Protesters Fight Congo Police

By EDWARD HARRIS
The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; 4:40 PM

KINSHASA, Congo -- Thousands of opposition supporters clashed with riot police Tuesday, burning President Joseph Kabila's campaign posters before historic weekend elections meant to bring lasting peace to Congo.

Security forces swung batons and fired tear gas at protesters, who threw Molotov cocktails and chunks of masonry in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa. There was no immediate word on injuries.

Young people made up most of the seething 4,000-person crowd in an outlying slum. One onlooker said they were outraged by their poverty after years of war and corrupt rule that has hobbled their vast, mineral-rich nation.

"Our poverty stems from our politics, which don't work. Our leaders are corrupt and sell our riches overseas while we have nothing," said Bob Massoud, 23, an artist. "We're mad because we're suffering. Everyone is angry."

The atmosphere is tense in the Central African nation ahead of Sunday's vote _ the first free, multiparty elections for president and parliament in decades.

The protesters, representing two opposition parties, alleged that irregularities in the voters' roll and the printing of 5 million spare ballot papers suggest the vote is being fixed. Election authorities reject the charges.

Kabila is believed to be the front-runner among 33 candidates seeking to lead the country out of a transition period following back-to-back wars that ended in 2002.

Many Congolese feel gratitude toward Kabila for negotiating a settlement that ended five years of war sparked by his father, Laurent, a former rebel leader who took power after his troops chased longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from the country in 1997.

Kabila inherited the presidency in 2001 after his father was assassinated and has led a national-unity government overseeing peace deals that ended the wars.

But the protesters say Kabila, 35, is not a natural-born Congolese because his mother is Rwandan. They note that he spent much of his youth outside Congo and cannot speak its main trading language, Lingala.

The demonstrators burned banners bearing Kabila's smiling face and the slogan: "In peace, we're reconstructing the country."

Violence continues to wrack Congo's eastern borderlands near Rwanda and Uganda _ two of the six nations that fought in its wars. Aid groups say some 4 million Congolese have died during the war, mostly of hunger or disease stemming from the fighting.

On Tuesday, the U.N. food agency said recent fighting among militia groups and soldiers in eastern Ituri Province has sent 38,000 people fleeing their homes.

The World Food Program said its relief stocks were "being stretched to the breaking point," and it needed $106 million to feed an estimated 1.7 million people across the country over the next year.

"The historic elections are attracting the world's attention but whatever the outcome, the need for food assistance will remain," said WFP's Congo representative, Felix Bamezon.

The agency said aid workers had reduced movements in Ituri in the week leading up to elections because of security concerns.

In Washington, Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the United States believes Sunday's vote will be fair but said the government likely would face challenges in carrying it out.

"This is Congo's first election in 40 years, so you will expect that there are going to be major difficulties," said Frazer, who planned to travel to Congo to observe the vote.

She said the government also must provide desperately needed services, exercise fiscal discipline and maintain a security force capable of protecting its people and defending its borders.

"We are on the eve of a historic moment in Congo," Frazer told reporters. "But we must keep in mind that the real work begins the day after the elections."

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Associated Press reporter Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press