Congo's Bemba, acquitted in ICC of war crimes, returns home for possible presidential bid

Police in Democratic Republic of Congo fired tear gas at supporters of opposition figure and presidential hopeful Jean-Pierre Bemba as they hit the streets to welcome him home after years in prison in The Hague, witnesses said.

Bemba could upend Joseph Kabila, whose term lapsed in 2016 with an election yet to be held

Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba is received by senior officials from the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo at the N'djili International Airport as he arrives in Kinshasa. Bemba was acquitted on appeal by the International Criminal Court earlier this year. (Jean Robert N'Kengo/Reuters)

Police in Democratic Republic of Congo fired tear gas at supporters of opposition figure and presidential hopeful Jean-Pierre Bemba as they hit the streets to welcome him home after years in prison in The Hague, witnesses said. 

A Reuters reporter saw police fire tear gas at opposition supporters in the streets of the neighbourhood of Limete as Bemba's convoy approached, and witnesses said officers also fired tear gas to clear the road near the airport.

Bemba returned home on Wednesday after a decade in prison and is expected to pose a stiff challenge to President Joseph Kabila or his successor in December's election.

Bemba, whose war crimes convictions at the International Criminal Court (ICC) were quashed on appeal in May, touched down aboard a private jet at Kinshasa's N'Djili airport, where thousands of cheering supporters wore T-shirts, hats, scarves and robes bearing his image.

Dressed in a dark suit and a red tie, Bemba, 55, shook hands with family members and officials from his MLC party before getting into a white SUV to drive toward the city centre, where he is due to attend a mass.

Supporters of Bemba chant slogans outside the N'djili International Airport as he arrives in Kinshasa on Wednesday. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

MLC official Jean-Jacques Mbungani told reporters that Bemba would submit his candidacy with the electoral commission on Thursday before taking a flight to his family's hometown of Gemena in northwestern Congo to pay his respects to his deceased father.

"The Congolese people have waited for this moment for a long time," said Toussaint Bodongo, an MLC member. "Bemba will maybe bring the solution that we need to Congo."

The former vice-president and warlord's return is expected to energize opposition to Kabila, who has been in power since his father's assassination in 2001 and is barred by constitutional term limits from standing for a new term.

Kabila has refused to commit publicly to not contesting the election. That has kept the country in suspense over whether he will choose someone else to represent his ruling coalition, paving the way for Congo's first democratic transition, or try to run again and risk a violent backlash.

Bemba's eligibility unclear

Security forces have killed dozens of protesters since late 2016 when Kabila refused to step aside at the end of his mandate, saying elections needed more time to be organised. Militia violence in the eastern borderlands has surged since then.

The deadline to file candidacies is Aug. 8. Bemba said last week that he believes he is the strongest candidate to represent the opposition, but would be willing to cede his place in favour of another candidate.

He could also see his eligibility to run challenged in the courts. The ruling coalition said last week he is disqualified from running by a witness-tampering conviction at the ICC, even though convictions for murder, rape and pillage committed by his militia in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002 were thrown out.

Joseph Kabila, Democratic Republic of Congo's president, took over in 2001 from his father, who was assassinated. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

The invalidation of Bemba's candidacy would infuriate his supporters, especially in western Congo. His loss to Kabila in the 2006 election saw gunbattles in the streets of Kinshasa between militia and government troops.

"If they try to exclude him, we know that's political," said Denise Vila, provincial co-ordinator of the MLC's women's league. "We are going to fight so that Jean-Pierre Bemba stays in the race."

Another opposition hopeful, millionaire businessman and former provincial governor Moise Katumbi, plans to return to Congo on Friday after two years in exile, but risks arrest due to a conviction for real estate fraud in 2016.

According to a poll released on Tuesday, Katumbi and fellow opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi lead the presidential race with 19 per cent of the vote each. Bemba would receive 17 per cent and Kabila nine per cent.


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