Calls for calm in Congo after Kabila emerges as the victor

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The Independent Online

Joseph Kabila was last night set to become Congo's first democratic head of state in more than 40 years after the country's independent electoral commission announced provisional results of the central African country's historic vote.

Kabila, who has been president since 2001 when his father, Laurent, was assassinated, won 58.05 per cent of the vote, while his challenger, former warlord, Jean Pierre Bemba, won 41.95 per cent.

But Bemba, whose Union for the Nation party has already claimed there had been "systematic cheating" in the count, may contest the result.

United Nations and European Union forces stationed in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, were last night on high alert in case Bemba, a vice-president in the transitional government, decided to encourage his supporters to come out onto the streets.

Small numbers of Kabila supporters celebrated in bars in Kinshasa, but the capital was mainly quiet. Most bars and restaurants closed early to avoid trouble. In the east of the country, where Kabila had most support, people took to the streets in celebration.

"People are very cheerful. There is a lot of marching and chanting ­ it is a good atmosphere," said Jacqueline Chenard, UN spokeswoman in Goma, North Kivu. "People are happy that the Congo now has a president that has been elected by them, the people, for the first time in their lives."

The election, which has cost the international community almost $500m to organise, was supposed to help heal a nation which has been ripped apart by nearly a decade of civil war. But the poll revealed deep splits in a country the size of western Europe.

Most of Kabila's support came in the Swahili-speaking east, where he sold himself as the architect of a 2003 peace deal. But that popularity was never matched in the west, including Kinshasa, where Kabila is viewed with suspicion. Bemba cleverly played on Kabila's poor grasp of Lingala, the main language in the west, and portrayed him as a foreigner. If Bemba contests the poll he will have wide support in Kinshasa. But Bemba, a former rebel leader, will face pressure from the international community, including African leaders, to swiftly announce that he accepts the results.

Andy Sparkes, the British ambassador in Kinshasa, said he was hopeful that Bemba would. "He is overwhelmingly the stronger of the two candidates in the west of the country and the results from the provincial elections should give him real influence and control over significant territories and resources."

Witnesses said the atmosphere in Kinshasa was tense yesterday afternoon. European Union troops patrolled the rapidly emptying streets. UN forces, which number 17,600 across Congo, stayed in sandbagged positions at various strategic points in Kinshasa.

The elections are the most important poll in Africa since South Africa's first post-apartheid vote in 1994. Congo is rich in minerals, including gold, diamonds, copper and coltan ­ a metal used in mobile phones. But decades of kleptocracy under the US-backed dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, followed by nearly a decade of civil war, has left the country in tatters.

It is estimated that four million people have died from war and diseases in the past decade. Even now 1,200 people die each day from war-related diseases.

The task facing Kabila is immense. Congo has just 300 miles of paved road. Basic infrastructure is non-existent. Schools and hospitals are scarce and over-crowded, and there are still militia groups which pose a threat to the country's stability.