Historic Congolese Vote

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(Presidential front-runner Joseph Kabila, shown right).

Congolese voted Sunday in their first democratic election in more than four decades, many hoping for an end to years of fighting and corrupt rule that have devastated the mineral-rich nation in the heart of Africa.

Congo's young President Joseph Kabila faced dozens of contenders, including ex-rebel leaders he once fought. The rebels carved the huge African country into rival fiefdoms before joining a transitional government three years ago as part of a peace deal that paved the way for the election.

"Today is a chance to make a new beginning and to draw the line at all the war we have seen," said Jean-Pierre Shamba, 44, an engineer who cast his ballot at a secondary school in the eastern town of Bunia guarded by a dozen blue-helmeted Moroccan peacekeepers. Kabila is the front-runner in a field of 33 hopefuls that include two of his four vice presidents; Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former Ugandan-backed rebel who once controlled northeast Congo; and Azarias Ruberwa, another ex-rebel who once controlled much of the east with backing from neighboring Rwanda.

Polling stations opened late in several cities, including the capital, Kinshasa, and the central diamond-mining city of Mbuji Mayi. Voters trudged past burning trash on their way to the polls before dawn in Kinshasa. Police checked them for weapons at the polling stations, and electoral workers dipped their right thumbs in purple ink to show they had voted.
"This is an historic day for us. We've only had coups d'etat and dictators in this country; phantom governments," said Emmanuel Kiye, 48, a mechanic. "Now we'll have a government of the people. I thank God." Surrounded by a dozen bodyguards and wearing a blue pinstriped suit, Kabila cast his ballot at a colonial-era Kinshasa school with broken windows.

"We're looking forward to a future of peace," Kabila told reporters. "We want to consolidate peace and stability in the country." Apparently asked whether he thought he would win, Kabila said simply: "I want victory for the Congolese people." The presidential ballots were huge: six newspaper-sized pages filled with dozens of candidates' faces, names and party symbols to help Congolese who can't read. More than 9,000 candidates are also running for 500 legislative seats. About 25 million of Congo's 58 million people are registered to vote.

The half-billion-dollar U.N.-supported enterprise is the world body's biggest ever, safeguarded by the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world, with 17,600 troops. The run-up to the vote was tense, with dozens killed in election-related violence. One parliamentary candidate fled the country because of shootings. In the central town of Mbuji Mayi, opposition militants burned a truck carrying voting materials.

Congo is recovering from back-to-back wars that lasted from 1996 to 2002. Despite the conflict's end, sporadic fighting has continued between government forces and militias in the east, where aid groups say about 1,000 people are dying every day from hunger and disease. Veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi is boycotting the vote and urging his followers to do the same. His call appeared to be heard in his stronghold in Mbuji Mayi, where there were more electoral officials and observers than voters at many polling stations. Crowds of youths hovered around some deserted polling booths as riot police patrolled the city.

Despite mineral wealth, Congo has remained poor, with whole villages in the country's remote, forested interior virtually cut off from the outside world and lawless chunks of the east still prone to militia attacks. "I have little hope that anything will change," said 56-year-old teacher Emmanuel Mukadi, who said he was voting for a president for the first time in his life. "It doesn't matter who wins."

Congo descended into conflict almost immediately after it shook off Belgian colonialism in 1960. Decades of civil wars and coups d'etat followed, with the late U.S.-backed Mobutu Sese Seko at the helm for 32 years. One of Mobutu's sons, Nzanga, is among those running for president.

A Rwandan-backed rebellion by Kabila's father, Laurent, forced Mobutu from power in 1997 but a fresh insurgency led by Rwanda rose the following year divided the country and drew in the armies of more than half a dozen African nations.
Joseph Kabila took power after his father was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001. He negotiated an official end to the war a year later, establishing a transitional government that made rebel leaders vice presidents. If no presidential candidate gains a majority, a runoff between the top two finishers will be held, probably in September.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

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