U.N. Troops Rescue Diplomats in Congo
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
KINSHASA, Congo, Aug. 21 -- Battles between forces loyal to President Joseph Kabila and those of his main campaign rival raged for a second day Monday, and U.N. peacekeepers safely evacuated foreign diplomats who had been trapped inside the challenger's besieged home when gunfire broke out.
The fighting in the Central African nation came after election officials announced Sunday that Kabila had failed to win an outright majority in Congo's first balloting in more than four decades and would face former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba in a second round in October.
[Fighting rocked the capital again Tuesday, as heavy gunfire continued in the area where diplomats were escorted from Monday, the Reuters news agency reported.]
U.N. spokesman Jean-Tobias Okala said the diplomats, including U.N. chief of mission William Swing, were being returned to the world body's offices in the capital, Kinshasa, after being evacuated from Bemba's compound by U.N. troops in armored personnel carriers.
"They're out, and they're coming to U.N. headquarters. Everyone's safe," he said.
The foreign envoys were meeting with Bemba when fighting erupted outside his compound. Swing, the head of the world body's 17,500-troop peacekeeping mission, was inside, along with envoys from the United States, France, China and other countries.
It was not clear if the diplomats were ambassadors or lower-ranking officials. The U.S. Embassy had no comment, and others were not immediately reachable for comment.
In a bid to quell the violence, the army issued orders Monday for all soldiers in the Congolese capital to lay down their arms.
An army spokesman, Col. Leon Richard Kasonga, appeared on national television and issued orders barring all troops from carrying their weapons in public without a written exemption. He appealed for calm, saying, "We're all members of the same army."
Bemba's political party said Kabila's guards attacked the house, drawing return fire from Bemba's guards. Bemba was in his office when the fighting started, said his spokesman, Moise Musangana.
A senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of prohibitions on dealing with the news media, confirmed that Kabila's special presidential guards were battling members of the postwar military drawn from Bemba's insurgent ranks. But the official said Bemba's guards provoked the battle.
Gun battles in the nation already had killed at least two people.
Kabila won 45 percent of the 16.9 million votes cast in the July 30 balloting and Bemba had 20 percent, according to Apollinaire Malu Malu, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission. The rest of the votes cast were shared among 31 other candidates. Voter turnout was about 70 percent.
A second round will be held Oct. 29, electoral commission spokesman Desire Molekela said.