World News

EU ambassadors call Congo's use of force in capital 'premature,' 'disproportionate'

Posted: 03/28/07 at 8:16 am EDT

KINSHASA, Congo -- Congo's government acted prematurely in using force to quell violence in the capital, European ambassadors said, calling last week's bloodshed a threat to the country's nascent democracy.

At least 150 people died in the clashes between government troops and forces loyal to ex-warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba, according to hospital figures cited by aid organizations.

German Ambassador Karl-Albrecht Wokalek said there were "clear indications from hospitals and morgues that the number is between 200 and 600." He did not clarify whether that figure included injured as well as dead.

Soldiers attacked Bemba's compound in what he says was an attempt to assassinate him. He has taken cover in the South African Embassy, along with his wife and five children. President Joseph Kabila accuses Bemba of trying to take over part of the capital and has issued a warrant for his arrest.

"The recourse to force was premature," said British Ambassador Andrew Sparkes, one of several EU envoys at a news conference Tuesday. He called the government's crackdown "totally disproportionate."

During the fighting, mortar rounds set fire to buildings, landing nearly 3 miles away in Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo. The Spanish Embassy was shelled and an oil field on the outskirts of the capital was set ablaze.

Sparkes said the fighting set back the country's efforts to transition to a democracy after decades of dictatorship and war that killed up to 4 million people and drew in armies from a half-dozen African nations.

Late last year Kabila beat Bemba in a runoff to become the country's first democratically elected leader since independence from Belgium in 1960.

Bemba, who was recently elected senator in the new government, initially refused to accept defeat, and his militia battled security forces in street clashes that left dozens dead. He later agreed to disband his forces, but has repeatedly missed deadlines to do so.

In a telephone interview from inside the embassy, Bemba denied he was plotting an insurrection.

"Do you believe that someone who wants to organize an insurrection will keep his children and wife in town? It's nonsense. When the fighting started I was with my wife in my house and my children were at school."

Bemba once commanded 20,000 fighters. Now he says he has just 350, 200 of which have surrendered to U.N. forces in the aftermath of last week's fighting. The government estimates he has 1,200 fighters.

Congo's history of instability has prevented mineral-rich country from profiting from its vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources. The nation the size of Texas has few roads, and little electricity outside major cities.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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