The United Nations was last night attempting to broker an end to gun battles on the streets of Kinshasa as the European Union rushed more peacekeepers to the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rocket and small arms fire between supporters of rival presidential candidates shook the riverside city for a third day after an election last month was declared inconclusive. A run-off election between the candidates, Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba, will be held next month.
After flying in three helicopters and about 60 French, Portuguese and Swedish special forces troops overnight, the European Union's rapid reaction force for Congo brought in 200 more German and Dutch soldiers from nearby Gabon. They joined 1,000 EU troops and more than 17,000 UN peacekeepers who had protected the election on 30 July, the first free election in more than four decades in the vast war-scarred former Belgian colony.
Mr Kabila, who at one stage looked like winning more than 50 per cent of the vote - enough to win outright - won 45 per cent, while Mr Bemba polled 20 per cent. The run-off is scheduled for 29 October.
International observers who watched over the first round of voting said they may not be able to send teams to cover the second round if the fighting continues. "If it's not safe, we won't be coming. Simple as that," said one observer who had been planning to return.
Fighting broke out between Mr Kabila's 14,000-strong presidential guard and troops loyal to Mr Bemba on Sunday after the announcement of the results. UN efforts on Monday to negotiate a truce came to nothing.
William Swing, the UN's most senior official in Congo, warned that continued fighting would damage the democratic process. "The people deserve more than clashes like these," he said. "People are waiting for good elections and these cannot take place with guns but ballots."
Mr Swing, and diplomats from the United States, France and China, had to be evacuated from Mr Bemba's house on Monday by 150 UN troops after the compound was attacked, allegedly by the presidential guard.
The provisional election results revealed a deep geographical split in a country the size of western Europe. The mainly Swahili-speaking east voted in huge numbers for Mr Kabila. He polled upwards of 85 per cent in North and South Kivu and Ituri - regions bedevilled by a decade of civil and regional war.
Mr Kabila characterised himself as the "architect of peace" after an agreement was signed in 2003. Under that peace deal, four vice-presidents were installed alongside Mr Kabila, including representatives of the main belligerents in the war. Azarias Ruberwa and Mr Bemba, the front men for the Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebel groups respectively, paid the price for their role in the war, polling in single digits in the east.
But Mr Kabila, who was born in Katanga and spent much of his youth in Tanzania, is deeply unpopular in Kinshasa and other parts of the west. He does not speak Lingala, the main language in the west, and was portrayed by Mr Bemba as not being truly Congolese. Mr Bemba successfully played on the strong anti-Kabila sentiment in the west, convincingly winning Kinshasa's four polling districts.
Both candidates will now try to convince the other leading candidates to back them, with the offer of jobs and - diplomats privately admit - money. Antoine Gizenga, a veteran politician in his eighties, came third with 13 per cent. Francois Joseph Mobutu Nzanga Ngangawe, son of the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, won 5 per cent of the vote, while Oscar Kashala, a Harvard-educated cancer specialist who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, came a creditable fifth with 4 per cent.
The elections have cost the international community more than $400m (£210m) to administer. The UN hopes that if the Democratic Republic of Congo can live up to its name there is a chance to end the violence and war-related diseases that have claimed more than four million lives and continue to kill 1,200 people each day.Reuse content