Order Restored in Kinshasa, Head of Congo's Army Says

By Eddy Isango
Associated Press
Saturday, March 24, 2007

KINSHASA, Congo, March 23 -- The head of Congo's army said in a nationally televised address Friday that security forces had regained control of the capital after two days of intense fighting against the militia of a former warlord who lost last year's presidential runoff.

Lt. Gen. Sungilanga Kisempia said that order had been restored in Kinshasa and that Jean-Pierre Bemba's militia had fled, according to the broadcast on state-run RTNC television. He urged members of the militia to turn themselves in at the headquarters of the United Nations mission in Congo, saying that if they don't, "we will pursue them to the very end."

Bemba, who sought refuge inside the South African Embassy, accused the government of starting the violence. He said that he had asked his men to stand down but that he no longer commands them. "I am not in control," he told the BBC.

Congo's chief prosecutor has issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of high treason.

"He has caused serious infractions by organizing a militia and by ordering looting. . . . His actions amount to high treason, and we will pursue him wherever he is," Tsaimanga Mukenda said, adding that he would ask parliament to strip Bemba of his immunity as a newly elected senator.

Sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the capital late Friday, but the intensity had decreased markedly from earlier in the day, when mortar rounds sent buildings up in flames, including a nearby oil refinery.

Hospital officials said at least 12 people were killed and as many as 47 wounded in two days of fighting between security forces and Bemba's personal militia, believed to number in the thousands.

An Italian citizen was among the wounded, the Italian Foreign Ministry said. The ministry gave no details about the man, but the Italian news agency ANSA said he was struck by a bullet.

Bemba came in second in last year's presidential election, the country's first in more than 40 years. After losing the runoff, he promised to disband his militia but has repeatedly missed deadlines to do so, most recently last week.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo welcomed the return of order to the capital but said it regretted the use of force to resolve the situation.

More than 90 members of Bemba's militia had turned themselves in at the U.N. base in the capital, according to an official with the mission who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. The army had seized two of Bemba's three residences in the capital, according to the governor of Kinshasa, Andre Kimbuta.

The street fighting erupted Thursday near Bemba's home and appeared to ease Thursday night, only to resume Friday.

During the height of the fighting, mortar rounds landed as far as 2 1/2 miles away in Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo, damaging the home of the defense minister, said government spokesman Alain Akouala. In Kinshasa, the Spanish Embassy was hit, and thick black smoke poured out of a damaged oil refinery.

Embassies had begun making plans to evacuate foreign nationals after the Zimbabwean Embassy was looted. The European Union called on factions in Kinshasa to settle their differences through dialogue and to ensure that civilians were not caught up in the violence.

This week's fighting is the first in the capital since Congo installed Joseph Kabila as president on Dec. 6, making him the nation's first freely elected president since 1960.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company