Tension mounts in Congo ahead of election run-off

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An uneasy calm fell on Kinshasa last night as the campaign to choose the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratically elected president in more than 40 years drew to a close.

Police were forced to step in to prevent violent clashes between supporters of the two presidential candidates, while an ally of President Joseph Kabila had to be rescued by the UN following a shoot-out at a radio station. Soldiers from the 17,600-strong UN force were last night patrolling Congo's major cities, backed up by more than 1,000 EU troops.

Although the first round of elections, held in July, passed off relatively peacefully, violence erupted three weeks later when the run-off between Mr Kabila and the former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba was announced. At least 30 people were killed in Kinshasa as both men's private armies exchanged fire. Mr Bemba's compound was attacked and his helicopter destroyed.

Since August's violence the campaign has been strangely muted. After Mr Bemba's helicopter was turned into a mangled lump of metal - it is still sitting on his lawn - the UN mission in Congo offered both candidates the use of a helicopter. But neither man has yet to step foot outside Kinshasa, instead choosing to send supporters to other regions to campaign.

A planned - and much-anticipated - live television debate was cancelled on Thursday after the candidates failed to agree on the rules. Mr Bemba, who had most to gain from such an event, asked for a US presidential-style head-to-head. Mr Kabila, fearing that Mr Bemba would take advantage of his inability to speak Lingala, the main language in the west of the country, insisted on separate, pre-recorded press conferences.

Mr Bemba was due to hold a mass rally yesterday in Kinshasa, but that too was cancelled. Instead, vans and trucks full of Bemba and Kabila supporters roared up and down Kinshasa's main streets. A confrontation was only averted after police moved in.

Gangs of young men supporting Mr Bemba marched in and out of side streets, singing songs in praise of the former rebel. Foreigners, especially Kinshasa's few white citizens, have become easy targets for Bemba supporters, angry at the perceived support Mr Kabila has received from the international community. Families of diplomats and NGO members have recently left Kinshasa and angry mobs have attacked foreign journalists.

Mr Kabila took power in 2001 at the age of 29 after his father, Laurent Kabila, the rebel who ousted the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, was assassinated. He has enormous popularity in the east, the region most affected by the country's civil war. But despite a peace agreement, signed by the belligerents in 2003, 1,200 people are dying each day from war-related diseases.

The election, which has cost the international community nearly $500m (£260m) to organise, has revealed a deep split within the nation along ethnic lines. Although Mr Kabila won up to 95 per cent of the vote in some eastern districts, that popularity is not found elsewhere. In the country's western regions, Mr Bemba has gained more support. He has made much of Mr Kablia's background growing up in Tanzania, claiming that the president must be truly Congolese.

Mr Kabila has sought to project himself as a uniter. The third and fourth-placed candidates in the first round, Antoine Gizenga and Francois Joseph Mobutu Nzanga, son of the former dictator Mobutu, have pledged their support for the current president.

Mr Kabila does have some support in Kinshasa, although it is usually only shown publicly by large groups of young men. Francois de Gama, a father of three, said he would be voting for the current president "because he is a gentleman. I know he will bring us peace". Mr Kabila, who won 45 per cent of the vote in the first round, compared to Mr Bemba's 20 per cent, is favourite. But diplomats and regional observers fear that whatever the outcome of tomorrow's election, the ethnic divisions may lead Congo spiralling back towards conflict.