Violent clashes broke out Thursday in the Congo's capital, Kinshasa, between goverment soldiers and troops loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord. Mainstream media and blogs are reporting heavy gunfire, explosions, and looting around the city. The clashes result from a dispute over Bemba's personal guard's refusal to join the Congolese army.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, a warlord turned senator and leader of Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), has taken refuge in the South African embassy in Kinshasa. Bemba was one of four vice-presidents in the Congolese transitional government. He lost the 2006 presidential race to the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, after two rounds of voting. He later contested for a senate seat and won.
Bloggers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been providing first-hand accounts of the clashes and life in the capital. Some bloggers have been writing hour by hour account of the events.
I am uncertain whether MONUC is playing right now. They are not taken seriously because of their mandate to NOT engage in combat. They successfully evacuated a bunch of VIPs to their compound, and my boss here said can't I just call William Swing “the President” (she really confused someone else with that joke) and tell him to make it stop. I asked for his number but didn't get one.
According to Congo Girl, the clashes have resulted in the closure of the airport in Kinshasa:
The airport is closed, so certain people scheduled to leave could not. I am worried about being ordered to evacuate – I would rather stay and get my work done. A friend of mine is stuck in Brazzaville till further notice, and her family is concerned about whether they will make it here for their visit.
Something happened when she (Congo Girl) was blogging:
Ah crap, gunfire on my corner again.
Kate Wolf reports that the kids at the French school next to Bemba's house have been trapped in the gymnasium:
The kids in the French school next door to Bemba's place are trapped inside the gymnasium.
There is a rumour about a rescue mission to get the kids out of danger:
Rumour has it that an armed convoy is being organised to rescue the schoolchildren stuck overnight at the French (and Belgian?) school(s). We may be invited to join. Having got accustomed to my makeshift bunker in the now relatively quiet zone, I am somewhat loathe to join an armed convoy taking me in the direction of the front line, even if it is to the safety of the embassy compound.
Blogger Kate Wolf has been trapped at a friend's apartment in Kinshasa. Fortunately, there is a fresh case of beer in the apartment!:
The good news? We're now trapped at a friend's apartment with a fresh case of beer.
With beer stocks running low, my companions are starting to wilt. But all has been getting progressively quieter over the last few hours and we're hoping to be able to escape homeward tomorrow.
Congo Girl was trapped in her office. She leaves a comment at Kate Wolf's blog:
Dang. Wish I hadn't gotten stuck at the office. A case of beer would sure smooth things over right now.
I’m not hiding under the bed just yet, but I am wondering what tomorrow’s headlines will say.
12.30pm: OK, I’m under my desk. Explosions and small arms fire in the neighbourhood. It looks like Bemba’s time is up.
2.15pm: Still sheltering from the storm. Word has it that the tanks are out, so things could get even noisier shortly. True to form, Reuters have a report on the situation. + BBC
3.30pm: The bad news is that the fighting is still going on, and the police station next to us had to repel an attack. The good news is that most of the nearest bangs now seem to be outgoing, all the friends I’ve called so far are OK, and our little house is still intact. As far as I can tell, there is a big firefight going on around the unfortunately-named Mandela Roundabout, which features a sculpture of a dove, and is the nearest key intersection to Bemba’s house. A tank has just rumbled past.
5pm: It’s been continuing so long, I even managed to doze off for a bit. But some larger rounds woke me up. Surprisingly, I can hear birdsong in the rare interludes. Nayembi has crawled to the kitchen and is making tomato soup. Lunch, at last!
The Spanish Embassy was hit by mortar fire and the Nigerian Ambassador has been wounded. Kate Wolf reports:
Meanwhile, the Spanish Embassy has been hit by mortal fire and the Nigerian Ambassador has been wounded in his home yesterday and as last heard, had not been evacuated as MONUC could not yet get to his house.
Fighters are still in the streets below -it looks from here like the post office just got hit- and my hopes of heading home (about a kilometer away) today were more or less dashed at dawn. Let's just hope my friendly host has enough toilet paper for the 9 of us camped out here.
Since watching Kabila's foot soldiers approach a hidden Bemba fighter with an RPG in the street outside, things have been a bit quieter. There are reports that an oil tanker by the river was lit on fire but the plume of smoke we see from the window is in the opposite direction. And of course, the looters trying to break into the NGO next door…
Word is that the lobby of the Memling (one of the big Kinshasa hotels) was hit yesterday, including a female expat.
Meanwhile, Kabila's government has issued a warrant for Bemba's arrest.
Things have been quiet for awhile now and word is that Kabila's troop have taken back the city (i.e. now it's their turn to loot). the police are now coming back into our part of the city, which we take as a good sign. They appear to be recovering looted treasures hidden in a flowerbed earlier.
No one quite knows what will happen to Bemba. Aside from the arrest warrant for high treason, we've heard Kabila planned to flatten his compound. We're all wondering: what exactly is the difference between high treason and low treason? Maybe the difference between Bemba's private military and stealing a bit of uranium?
It is safer to sleep on the floor, away from the windows, writes Extra Extra adding that Presidential Guards looted his neighbor's house. And who knocked at his door?:
9.50am: We had a bit of a fright when someone banged on our window last night. When we called out, nobody replied. It turns out our neighbours’ houses were looted by… the Presidential Guards. Woopie-doo.
A blogger's house was almost looted by a Presidential Guard if it were not for the housekeeper. Nayembi writes:
I was informed by our heroic housekeeper that during the night a Republican Guard soldier came through the ‘parcelle’ we share with five other households, looting our neighbours and trying to get into our house. She warded him off, swearing that no one was home and that she didn't have the keys to our place (the woman will get a raise!). Apparently he is still outside our gate terrorising our guards, but hopefully our proximity to the police will finally come in handy.
Extra Extra explains how they helped a hungry neighbor without leaving their house:
We’ve just cut a corner out of the mosquito netting in our back window, in order to pass across some houmous, sardines and bread to a hungry neighbour.
Extra Extra latest post reads: Fighting abates, evacuations continue,
4pm: MONUC has just evacuated the people who spent the night in the Grand Hotel carpark, leading a convoy of about 25 cars through streets populated only by soldiers. You can see the last car of the convoy in the photo above.
As soldiers continue to help themselves to others’ possessions, to a soundtrack of dull, distant booms, Javier Solana ventures a suggestion for the Congo: ‘I think in a country after elections the tendency is – slowly sometimes but as rapidly as possible – to have one armed forces.’ Cheers, Javi.