DR Congo on high alert awaiting election final results

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Police fired tear gas to disperse opposition supporters in Kinshasa as tensions were running high in the DR Congo Tuesday as early results showed President Joseph Kabila heading towards re-election.

The giant central African country is on high alert as it awaits the final results after a campaign that saw deadly police crackdowns on opposition rallies and a series of clashes between rival partisans.

Kabila, in power since 2001, was ahead in the field of 11 candidates with 46.4 percent after ballots from just over two-thirds of polling centres had been tallied, according to results issued early Tuesday.

His top challenger, veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, was trailing on 36.2 percent.

An official announcement of the election winner could come later Tuesday, and observers have warned it could spark new violence no matter who wins.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been holding its breath since the November 28 vote, which was marred by chaos and rioting at polling stations and deadly rebel attacks in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi.

Washington called on all political factions to reject violence and for the authorities to protect the population.

"Violence has no place in the democratic process," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

"The United States urges all Congolese political leaders and their supporters to act responsibly and to renounce violence, and reminds the government of the DRC of its responsibility to provide security for the Congolese population," Toner said.

Some 20,000 soldiers are on stand-by at bases in Kinshasa, and convoys of large trucks packed with armed police carrying gas masks were seen on the capital's unusually quiet streets.

Heavy police patrols fired tear gas and repeatedly dispersed opposition supporters outside the headquarters of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Tshisekedi's party.

The city's largest market had few vendors and fewer customers. Mungali, a shoe salesman, said the memory of the last elections in 2006 had made people stay home.

After those polls, security forces clashed with rebels loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba, the loser of a run-off election against Kabila. His men managed to take over the city centre in a hail of bullets and bombs.

"People are afraid. In 2006, when shrapnel fell not far from the market, people were caught by surprise and it left its mark," Mungali told AFP.

In Mbuji-Mayi, capital of Kasai Oriental province and a Tshisekedi stronghold, authorities had imposed a 10:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew.

In Lubumbashi, Kabila's presidential guard was deployed.

Tensions spilled over Tuesday into the Congolese diaspora. In London, some 300 anti-Kabila protesters accusing Western countries of backing the incumbent clashed with police outside Prime Minister David Cameron's residence. Two people were treated for injuries.

Congolese protesters also clashed with police Monday in Brussels, where nearly 100 Tshisekedi supporters were arrested, the Belga news agency reported.

The International Crisis Group has put the DR Congo on its "conflict risk alert" list, citing clashes in Kinshasa on the eve of the polls, the attacks in Lubumbashi on voting day and a call from several opposition candidates for the vote to be annulled.

Human Rights Watch has said at least 18 civilians died in election-related violence from November 26 to 28, most of them shot dead by Kabila's presidential guard in Kinshasa.

International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo issued a warning to the rival camps on Tuesday.

"We are closely watching the situation on the ground, and recourse to violence will not be accepted," he said in a statement.

"As we have shown in both Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire, planning and executing attacks on civilians for electoral gain will not be tolerated."

The result is expected late in the day, if it comes Tuesday at all.

The head of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Daniel Ngoy Mulunda, indicated earlier that the commission, which has been plagued by delays and logistical chaos throughout the process, may not make Tuesday's deadline.

Election officials had to bring in more than 80 aircraft to get ballots distributed to some 64,000 polling stations in a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe, and poor infrastructure has made counting equally slow.

The elections are just the second since back-to-back wars from 1996 to 2003 in a country ranked last on the UN's development index despite a wealth of cobalt, copper, diamonds and gold.

The supreme court has until December 17 to review the result and declare the official winner. Provisional parliamentary results are due in mid-January.

© 2011 AFP

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