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Voters brave rain and a tense atmosphere to vote in Congo

KINSHASA, Congo—Hoping for a fresh start after decades of conflict and misrule, voters across this massive central African nation went to the polls Sunday in a nervous presidential election watched over by thousands of international troops.

The runoff between incumbent Joseph Kabila and vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba comes after Kabila fell 5 percent shy of a majority in July's first round of voting, the first democratic presidential election in Congo in more than 40 years. Results are expected by Nov. 10.

Sunday's vote was peaceful in most of the country, but tension surrounds the tallying of votes, which began when the polls closed. In August, as first-round results were announced, deadly clashes erupted in the riverside capital, Kinshasa, between the two candidates' personal armies.

On Sunday, more than 2,000 United Nations troops and 1,700 European Union soldiers kept watch over Kinshasa from behind heavily fortified positions throughout the city.

Underscoring the anxiety elsewhere in the country, two people were killed in the northern Equateur province when police opened fire on Bemba supporters who were rioting in protest of alleged ballot stuffing in favor of Kabila. The Bemba supporters destroyed the polling station, U.N. officials said.

But international observers pronounced the election an overall success. The question now is whether the loser and his supporters will accept defeat.

"Our nation has a crisis of political legitimacy," said Sony Kafuta Rockman, an influential evangelist and Kabila ally. "The loser must accept the verdict of the people."

Wracked by a civil war that started in 1997 and eventually involved six neighboring countries and caused the deaths of some 4 million people, Congo, despite huge natural riches, now sits near the bottom of nearly every world ranking of health and economic development. Life expectancy has plummeted to 45 years.

Staging these elections has been an incredibly complex affair, one that's cost the international community more than $500 million. But William Lacy Swing, the top U.N. official in Congo, said over the weekend that the election could stabilize a volatile region and called it Africa's most important since 1994 in South Africa, which ended apartheid.

On Sunday, heavy rain fell over Kinshasa for much of the day, likely suppressing voter turnout in a city that went robustly for Bemba in the first round. Some polling stations opened more than two hours late, but officials said they would allow voting to go on past the deadline.

As rutted streets turned to rivers and electricity flickered on and off, voters trickled to cast their ballots clad in flimsy ponchos or toting huge patio umbrellas. Once inside dark polling places, many voters struggled with the instructions; choosing from more than one candidate is still a relatively new concept in Congo.

"It was easier to vote the second time," said Francesca Ngundu, a 65-year-old widow. She cast her vote for Kabila because "I've seen his work and I believe he can bring peace."

Uniformed members of Kabila's army were visible in some parts of the city, and some signs of tension were apparent. In the dilapidated district of Kingabwa late Sunday morning, a dozen young Bemba supporters descended on a man who they said had been bribing voters with $20 to vote for Kabila, and attacked him with sticks and plastic chairs.

"If Bemba doesn't win, here in Kinshasa I am worried there will be problems," said John Kabungo, 29, who voted for Bemba. "There are many people who are ready to fight for the candidate."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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