By Joe Bavier
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 2:47 PM
KINSHASA (Reuters) - At least 37 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and opposition supporters protesting against the results of governorship polls in Congo's most western province, officials said on Thursday.
The violence which erupted from late on Wednesday in several Bas-Congo province towns appeared to be the worst since President Joseph Kabila won last year's presidential election in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kabila defeated his rival, former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, in what were the first free elections held in more than 40 years in the vast, former Belgian colony.
Bemba supporters in Bas-Congo clashed with armed police and soldiers after taking to the streets to protest against the results of governors' elections last Saturday mostly won by pro-Kabila candidates.
"We've got 25 bodies here, including two police officers," said one hospital administrator at Boma, a town across the Congo river from the provincial capital Matadi.
U.N. Okapi Radio quoted the mayor of Matadi as saying 12 people had been killed in the riverside port, and that more deaths had been reported from Moanda on the Atlantic coast.
But reports of casualties were confused and officials from the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo said it was too early to give a definitive death toll.
The violence followed a verbal attack by Bemba on Kabila last week in which he accused the president's camp of buying local assembly members' votes for governors and senators.
"The troubles began last night and continued this morning," said Leonard Fuka Unzola, the defeated opposition candidate in the local Bas-Congo governor elections.
"There were dead bodies outside my residence."
Interior Minister General Denis Kalume traveled to the province to direct efforts to control the violence.
Unzola said shooting began when police raided the home in Matadi of Nemuanda Nsemi, his candidate for vice-governor and the spiritual head of Bundu dia Kongo, an anti-government ethnic-based political and religious movement.
A U.N. official, who asked not to be named, said U.N. peacekeepers had fired in the air to free U.N. staff from two vehicles surrounded by about 200 stone-throwing protesters during the violence. One of the vehicles was set alight.
Last week, Bemba, who had served as one of Kabila's vice-presidents in the transition after Congo's 1998-2003 war, criticized the president in a television broadcast.
Bemba accused the president's Alliance of the Presidential Majority (AMP) of buying the votes of provincial assembly members to win a majority of Senate seats and governor's posts.
The AMP won six of the nine governorships, while Bemba's Union of the Nation (UN) coalition won only one, in his home province of Equateur. UN failed to win the governorships of Kinshasa and Bas-Congo, where Bemba has a popular following.
AMP officials have denied the corruption and vote-buying allegations, blaming a lack of cohesion within the UN for its failures in the Senate and governors' polls.
Kabila allies also dominate the national parliament where they have used their majority to seize control of important commissions. Some analysts had expressed fears this marginalization of the opposition could lead to unrest.
During last year's presidential and legislative elections, soldiers loyal to Bemba clashed with Kabila's presidential guard in street battles in the capital Kinshasa that killed dozens.