Congo officials: vote to proceed after clashes

AP News
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Posted: Nov 27, 2011 1:30 PM
Congo officials: vote to proceed after clashes

Election officials in Congo said Sunday that a critical national poll would go ahead Monday, after a weekend marred by deadly clashes at political gatherings, reports of delayed ballots and fears that the vote could re-ignite conflict in the large, mineral-rich central African nation.

Daniel Ngoy Mulunda, president of the Independent National Electoral Commission, said Sunday the vote would take place. Commission Vice President Jacques Ndjoli said separately: "We invite our people to go vote calmly."

At least four people were killed in Saturday's clashes when political supporters headed to Kinshasa's main airport to welcome their candidate. Main opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi arrived; the president _ who is expected to win the poll _ did not pass through as expected.

Scuffles erupted and security forces at the airport fired tear gas and live ammunition into the burgeoning crowd. Riot police manned the airport for hours afterward to prevent Tshisekedi and his convoy from leaving.

Police inspector general Charles Bisengimana said four bodies were recovered and taken to a morgue on Sunday, and said opposition supporters attacked the president's supporters. He also blamed Tshisekedi for refusing to leave the airport.

Tshisekedi said Sunday that more than 10 people were killed and 68 were wounded. He said three of the dead were members of his office and were killed by police, but he did not give details on the others. Later Sunday, Godefroid Mayobo, an official from a party allied with President Joseph Kabila, said their supporters were attacked by Tshisekedi's supporters, leaving three dead. And two dead bodies were seen on the road leading to the airport when clashes erupted there.

The European Union's election observation mission criticized police in a statement released Sunday.

The EU mission said it "considers the police operation that took place last night at (Kinshasa's) airport against the convoy of a presidential candidate and the arrests that were made as a serious breach of the right to campaign and the principle of equality that should prevail."

Saturday's violence prompted officials to ban political rallies and gatherings before the election. A defiant Tshisekedi said Sunday that he planned to hold an afternoon public meeting at Kinshasa's Martyrs' Stadium, but the meeting did not happen.

The EU mission also said it "regrets that the last days of the electoral campaign were spoiled by many serious incidents and violent clashes which unfortunately cost human lives, especially in Kinshasa. The mission deplores the chaotic and improvised management of the last political meetings by many presidential candidates, by the Kinshasa authorities which restrained freedom of opinion, meetings and demonstrations."

Human rights groups had expressed fears about an atmosphere of spiraling violence and hate speech ahead of the vote.

The violence is just one of the numerous challenges that could derail the vote and re-ignite conflict.

As of Friday, many polling stations had not yet received the necessary voting materials, after least 33 of the 80 planes carrying voting materials to the provinces were unable to take off because of bad weather.

Election experts said it was unlikely the ballots would reach the remote interior in time in a country with so few paved roads, and where there are some 60,000 polling stations spread out over a territory the size of Western Europe.

"We have been trying to sound the alarm but to no avail," said Jerome Bonso, coordinator of the Coalition for Peaceful and Transparent Elections.

It's the country's first election since the landmark 2006 vote which was considered the country's first democratic vote in 40 years, but was marred by weeks of street battles led by supporters of the losing candidate.

Congo's history of back-to-back wars also provides a backdrop. Kabila, a former rebel leader, first took control of the country a decade ago, after the 2001 assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, who ruled Congo after overthrowing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.

He was elected president in 2006, a vote which was overseen and organized by the U.N. The runner-up was former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba, now on trial at the Hague. He refused to accept defeat, unleashing his private army on the capital, leading to weeks of street battles.

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Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Kinshasa, Congo.