Violence Erupts as Vote Nears in Congo

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 28, 2006

KINSHASA, Congo, July At least two police officers were killed Thursday by a crowd outside a rally for a leading opposition candidate, witnesses said, as the buildup to Congo's first multiparty election in more than 40 years turned violent. Several civilians were injured when police fired bullets and canisters of tear gas.

The incident came on a day filled with rising drama in advance of Sunday's vote. A top militia leader in eastern Congo agreed to disarm. Catholic officials dropped their threat to boycott the election. And at least three children were killed in a fire at a makeshift barracks for troops affiliated with Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of the presidential candidates.

Bemba, a stocky former rebel leader and one of Congo's four vice presidents, has emerged in recent weeks as among the leading candidates against incumbent Joseph Kabila, who is unpopular with many voters in Kinshasa, the capital.

The clash involving the police occurred outside a Bemba rally. At 3:20 p.m., the sound of gunfire crackled near the soccer stadium where his supporters had gathered to see him. Dozens of young men ran inside the stadium rubbing their eyes. Several others, bloodied and wearing Bemba T-shirts, were escorted by medics. A plume of black smoke rose beyond the concrete bleachers.

Witnesses later said a crowd gathered outside the stadium, doused one police officer with gasoline and set him on fire. A second officer was beaten to death and dismembered before the crowd dragged parts of his corpse through the streets.

Calls to police officials were unsuccessful, but a piece of a skull was visible hours later on the sidewalk outside the stadium. A fire that also consumed a delivery truck appeared to include human bone fragments.

One witness, Fortunat Ngoyi, 34, said that he saw the two killings and that a third officer was dragged into a nearby creek and drowned.

"We couldn't imagine that it could be like this," Ngoyi said of the election violence.

The Bemba compound, where more than 200 of his soldiers and their families live on a plot slightly larger than a football field, caught fire at 1 p.m. Moments earlier, two French Mirage fighter jets from the international forces amassed to protect Congo had flown low over the city. Several witnesses said they believed that the jets ignited the blaze, but a U.N. spokesman said the planes had no role and were on a reconnaissance mission intended to "project force" ahead of Sunday's vote.

Hours after the blaze, the charred remains of two small children were visible in one part of the ruined compound. The remains of what appeared to be a third child were in a separate smoldering fire amid twisted sheet metal and scorched kitchenware. Residents of the compound said at least six children had died.

Among those who feared the loss of a child was Bibiche Aponongo, 22, who had attended the Bemba rally at the stadium. She left her 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, behind in the compound and could not find her when she returned.

"I don't see her," Aponongo said as she wept, holding her other child, Daniel, 1, on her hip. "When I came back, I saw the house like this, on fire."

A team of city investigators visited the site of the fire Thursday evening and said it was unclear whether it was related to Sunday's vote.

Elsewhere, the last two main militia groups in Ituri, Congo's most troubled province, agreed to disarm in exchange for amnesty and army positions, officials said Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

Despite the rising tensions in Kinshasa, the election seemed on schedule after months of rumors that it would be delayed. Congo is attempting to emerge from decades of war and misrule. Kabila took power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, a rebel leader who seized power by force in 1997, toppling the longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

The vote is supported by a 17,500-member U.N. peacekeeping force and $450 million in direct funding by foreign governments eager to see Congo become peaceful and stable.

More than 30 candidates are running for president, and if none receives a majority of the votes, a runoff is planned between the top two finishers, probably in October or November.

On Sunday, Catholic officials had threatened to boycott the vote because of fears of fraud. On Thursday, they announced that those concerns had been addressed and encouraged all eligible Congolese to cast ballots.

"We say to people, avoid violence, to go vote in sanity and in a peaceful manner," said Laurent Monsengwo, president of Congo's Catholic hierarchy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company