Election Fighting Breaks Out in Congo

By HEIDI VOGT
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 26, 2006; 10:01 PM

KINSHASA, Congo -- Forces loyal to Congo's presidential challenger fought bodyguards protecting a political ally of the president Thursday, raising tensions just ahead of a vote to pick the first democratically elected leader in 40 years.

Clashes erupted in the northern town of Gbadolite between forces loyal to opposition candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba and bodyguards protecting Nzanga Mobutu, son of late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was campaigning on President Joseph Kabila's behalf, Information Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi said.

A U.N.-backed radio station reported four dead, including one of Bemba's soldiers. Mobutu was not injured, Sakanyi said, but added that he had no information on any fatalities.

Both sides blamed the other for starting the clash.

Meanwhile, gunshots echoed in the capital, Kinshasa, as guards suppressed a riot at the city's main prison. The prisoners began rioting after authorities tightened restrictions following the escape of a dozen inmates convicted for involvement in the assassination of Kabila's father, President Laurent Kabila.

At least two prisoners were reported killed in the melee. U.N. spokesman Jean Tobie Okala called the riot an isolated incident "that will not threaten the vote."

Tensions have been rising as this huge, mineral-rich central African nation readies for Sunday's runoff between Kabila and Bemba, an ex-rebel leader who is now one of the country's four vice presidents.

The runoff was required after no candidate won a simple majority during the first round July 30, though Kabila finished far ahead with 45 percent, compared to Bemba's 20 percent.

As first-round results trickled in showing Kabila with a firm lead in August, street battles erupted in Kinshasa between Kabila's troops and Bemba's guards that shook the city and lasted three days. The two sides battled with automatic weapons, heavy guns and tanks. At least 31 people died.

Speaking earlier Thursday, Bemba said he would accept the results of Sunday's runoff _ even if he lost _ but warned he would contest the ballot if there was fraud. He said he hoped measures taken since the first round, including plans to put party witnesses in each polling station, will avert any problems.

"I am a democrat," Bemba told reporters at his office in Kinshasa. "Losing and winning elections are the results in a democracy of the will of the people of Congo, and I am of course willing to accept results."

Bemba is a 44-year-old former warlord who once ruled a vast patch of territory in northeastern Congo with backing from neighboring Uganda during Congo's 1998-2002 war, which drew in the armies of more than half a dozen African nations.

Kabila signed a peace deal with Bemba and other rebels that ended the fighting and reunited the country, and gave rebel leaders top jobs in a transitional government set up in 2003.

It was unclear what affect, if any, the latest fighting in Gbadolite would have on the ballot.

A Bemba spokesman said Thursday's fighting began when Mobutu tried to force his way into a radio station owned by Bemba, and Bemba's soldiers refused to let him enter.

"He said no one could keep him from passing," Bemba spokesman Moise Musangana said. "Then there was an exchange of fire."

Mobutu spokesman Charles Kilosho said Mobutu was trying to enter the station to respond to negative reports it had broadcast about him. Mobutu, the spokesman said, had been taken to a secure spot, but did not say where for security reasons.

___

Associated Press writers Eddy Isango in Kinshasa and Anjan Sundaram in Goma contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press