Kabila declared winner of Congo presidential runoff

Posted in Africa | 16-Nov-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Supporters of incumbent President Joseph Kabila celebrate on the streets of Kinshasa following the announcement of his victory in the election run-off against Jean-Pierre Bemba.

KINSHASA, Incumbent President Joseph Kabila was declared the winner of Congo's tense runoff election, defeating his ex-rebel leader rival in the war-ravaged country's first multiparty contest in more than four decades.

Kabila won with about 58 percent of the vote, compared with nearly 42 percent for Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, said Apollinaire Malu Malu, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission.

International observers have deemed the Oct. 29 ballot largely free and fair, but Bemba supporters have alleged widespread fraud, and on Saturday his fighters battled police and troops loyal to Kabila for several hours in the capital, leaving three civilians and one soldier dead.

Speaking in a televised address late Wednesday after being declared victor, 35-year-old Kabila called for calm and said police and army troops were working to ensure security nationwide.

"Peace must reign in every corner of the country. Long live democracy. Long live the new Democratic Republic of Congo," Kabila said. "I ask you tonight to remain united and to live in fraternity and tolerance."

A few dozen people filled some downtown Kinshasa bars and made celebratory toasts, while car horns honked in victory in an elite suburb. From Bemba's home there was silence, repeated over most of this capital of nearly 7 million people, where the opposition leader enjoys massive support.

The vote is the final step of a transition to democratic rule that started with a peace deal four years ago that ended years of war, reunited the country and gave rebel leaders who once controlled vast swathes of the north and the east top positions in government. Bemba became one of four vice presidents.

Kabila looked set for victory since earlier this week, when results showed him with an insurmountable lead. No official winner had been declared by the electoral commission until Wednesday night, when Malu Malu made the announcement on state television that Kabila won a five-year term.

The electoral commission had said it would look into Bemba's complaints alleging fraud, but Malu Malu made no reference to the investigations.

Kabila won 9,436,779 votes, compared to 6,819,822 votes for Bemba, Malu Malu said. Turnout among the nation's 25 million registered voters was about 65 percent.

Kabila first inherited the nation's top post when his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001. The elder Kabila was propelled to power at the head of a Rwandan-backed rebellion in 1997 that ousted late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who had ruled for 32 years. The country then suffered another 1998-2002 war that drew in the armies of half a dozen African nations.

"The big hope is that people want the elections, they want peace, they want to get on with their lives in circumstances that promise a better future," said William Lacy Swing, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative to the Congo.

"The vast majority of people are tired of war, tired of violence, they want peace and they are not easily going to be involved in acts that will disrupt order," he said. "I honestly believe that after these elections, one can truly say that this country is another country."

Much of Congo is deeply poor with few paved roads and only scattered access to clean water and electricity despite the country's vast mineral wealth. Developing it will be a colossal task.

"The work ahead of us will be hard," Kabila told reporters earlier.

The U.N. mission deployed tanks onto Kinshasa's streets Wednesday shortly before the announcement of final results, part of stepped-up security across Kinshasa that has also included a greater presence of European peacekeepers and police.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on supporters of both Kabila and Bemba to avoid violence, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.

Many have been bracing for violence since results of the first presidential round were announced in August, which led to three days of street battles between the top two finishers that killed 23 people.

The two sides clashed again Saturday, and on Tuesday, Bemba's spokesman Moise Musangana said a Congolese Armed Forces officer led a convoy of 16 trucks to Bemba's residence and demanded that 300 members of Bemba's bodyguard accompany them to be confined to barracks on the outskirts of town. They refused and the trucks left, Musangana said.

Army spokesman Col. Leo-Richard Kasonga said he could not comment on the demand, which appeared to have been made without consulting U.N. peacekeepers.

White U.N. personnel carriers with mounted submachine guns and truckloads of troops remained overnight in front of Bemba's house on the capital's main June 30 Boulevard, where the two sides had fought anew Saturday. U.N. military spokesman Lt. Col. Stephane Lescoffit said about 100 troops had been stationed there.

Musangana said Bemba had about 1,500 armed fighters at his home, while the presidential guard numbered up to 15,000.

International observers have reported some problems in the largely peaceful elections, but largely agree that the exercise was free and fair - a tremendous achievement given the size and population of the country, its primitive infrastructure, lack of institutions, and the fragility of a peace that still has not taken hold in the east.

The Central African nation is the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, but has only 300 miles (483 kilometers) of paved roads, posing huge logistical problems for the U.N. mission that spent nearly $500 million on the vote, the biggest election the world body had ever helped organize.

"There have been issues but, technically speaking, I really believe it was free and fair," said Carmina Sanchis-Ruescas of the Washington-based IFES, which aids elections around the world. "There always some errors and mistakes, but not to the extent that we could claim that it has not been free and fair."

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Associated Press writer Eddy Isango contributed to this report.

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