Gunfights erupt between Congo poll rivals

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Battles between forces loyal to the Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, and those of his main campaign rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, broke out for a second day yesterday, with heavy gunfire outside Mr Bemba's home as he met top diplomats inside.

The United Nations sent scores of peacekeepers in armoured vehicles to rescue the diplomats, including William Swing, the head of the world body's 17,500-troop peacekeeping mission, and envoys from the UK, the US, France, China and other countries.

Jean-Tobias Okala, a UN spokesman, said 150 UN soldiers in 20 armoured personnel carriers were to take the foreign envoys from Mr Bemba's home, where they were meeting the candidate when fighting erupted outside his compound.

It wasn't clear if the diplomats were ambassadors or lower-ranking officials. The US embassy had no comment and others weren't immediately reachable for comment. Mr Bemba's political party said Mr Kabila's guards attacked the house in the north-eastern Gombe district of Kinshasa, drawing return fire, but not before Mr Bemba's helicopter caught fire inside the compound. Mr Bemba, who is also a vice-president in the national unity government, was in his office at the time, said Moise Musangana, his spokesman.

A senior military official confirmed that Mr Kabila's special presidential guards had spent a second day battling members of the post-war military drawn from Mr Bemba's insurgent ranks.

Mr Kabila failed to win an outright majority in Congo's historic elections but called the results "a great victory" as the country braced itself for a runoff on 29 October between the two men.

With 16.9 million votes cast in the 30 July ballot, Mr Kabila won 45 per cent of the share against Jean-Pierre Bemba's 20 per cent, said Apollinaire Malu Malu, the chairman of the Electoral Commission. The remainder of the votes cast were shared among 31 other candidates who did not make it to the second and final round, he said. Turnout was about 70 per cent.

President Kabila appeared on television on Sunday to thank voters and to call for calm after the violence. "To all of you who chose me, I say thank you ... It's a great victory." Mr Kabila, the 35-year-old head of state who helped end Congo's war, which raged from 1996 to 2002, is leader of the transitional government. Congo's first elections in more than four decades are meant to select a legitimate leader to knit together the country's 58 million people and end years of corrupt rule and war.

Under the deals to end Congo's wars, ex-rebel fighters were able to join the security forces, but many retain loyalty to their former leaders.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, whose peacekeepers are guarding the country and helping oversee the voting process, hailed the voting. "These elections were a historic milestone in the peace process in the country," he said. He urged "the Congolese parties and candidates to abide by the electoral law in the resolution of any disputes related to the electoral process", calling on them "to accept and respect the final results of the elections, in a spirit of peace and reconciliation".

Representatives for Mr Bemba, who led a rebel faction in the wars, said his support was strong enough to overcome alleged vote-tampering. "Kabila's party tampered with ballots and increased Kabila's score in the east. But despite the irregularities, they could not win the vote," said Dully Sesanga, spokesman for Mr Bemba's party, which polled strongly in the overcrowded capital, Kinshasa.

Mr Bemba and Azarias Ruberwa, another top candidate, have both alleged fraud and said they may contest the results. Nineteen lesser candidates have banded together to demand a rerun of the vote.

The Supreme Court will pronounce the final election results before 31 August.