Congo Voters Trickle to Polls

By Louis Okamba, Associated Press Writer, Washington Post, Sunday 23 June 2002; 3:42 PM

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo—Armed soldiers patrolled the streets and security was tight for runoff parliamentary elections Sunday, one week after a rebel attack on this central African capital.

Sunday's vote and a first round of balloting May 26 were the first parliamentary elections since two back-to-back civil wars ended in 1999.

The start of voting was delayed by up to an hour in Brazzaville's southern districts, where fighting broke out June 14. Electoral officials blamed difficulties distributing voting materials.

Minor irregularities, including attempts to cast ballots with forged voter cards, were reported in other parts of the city. But voting in most parts of the country took place slowly but without incidents, electoral officials said.

Soldiers briefly opened fire to disperse a crowd of looters in Brazzaville's Moukondo neighborhood, police and electoral officials said. But voting was not interrupted, and no casualties were reported.

Results weren't expected for at least two days.

We must quickly get all the democratic institutions in place, said banker Felix Okoko. Once everything has been established, I don't think we will experience these problems again.

Fifty-one lawmakers were elected in the first round of the poll, securing at least 50 percent of the vote. Eighty-six seats remain to be filled.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's party secured 29 seats in the first round, compared to just two seats apiece for its two nearest rivals.

The vote was marred by allegations of ballot box stuffing and other irregularities. A dozen candidates were disqualified, and voting had to be repeated in 11 districts.

On Sunday, some people said they were still too afraid to return to the southern end of Brazzaville to cast their ballots because of the rebel offensive.

I think the security situation is still precarious. I don't want to risk my life, said Mathieu Senga, a school teacher from Moukondo who was sheltering with friends in the north of the city.

It was the rebels' first assault on the capital since they restarted a civil war in late March. They targeted the city's main military base, but were driven back by the army.

The rebels are followers of a renegade pastor, Frederic Bitsangou, and call themselves Ninjas after ancient Japanese warriors. They are demanding a role in military and political decisions.

No voting took place in eight of the 14 districts in the southern Pool region, where the rebels launched a wave of attacks March 29.

U.N. officials say the fighting over the last few months has displaced at least 50,000 people.

Municipal elections originally also scheduled for Sunday have been postponed until June 30.