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Congo Presidential Run-off Pits Incumbent, Warlord

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Voters in war-torn Congo cast their ballots Sunday in a run-off presidential election between the incumbent Joseph Kabila and former rebel warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. It is the first free election in Congo in more than 40 years.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In the Democratic Republic of Congo today it was mostly peaceful for the runoff presidential election. The race is between President Joseph Kabila and vice president and former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba.

The presidential contest is the first free election in Congo in more than 40 years.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now from the capital, Kinshasa.

Ofeibea, what was the scene at the polling stations you visited today?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: In Kinshasa, the rain seemed to be the winner. We had rumbling thunder and lightning that sounded as if there was a gun battle happening on the street.

So despite that, the Congolese ventured out, timidly at the beginning, because it was raining so hard, but they did go out and vote. And most people repeated the same mantra: We want development. We want an end to the violence and destruction and dictatorship of the past 46 years. We want Congo to move forward.

ELLIOTT: Tell us about these two candidates.

QUIST-ARCTON: Physically, they couldn't be more different. Jean-Pierre Bemba is a huge, rather hulking man. Joseph Kabila is small and neat. But they do have similarities. Both have been warlords, rebel leaders in their time. Both have been educated abroad. Both say they want to reunite and rebuild Congo.

ELLIOTT: Now, when are these results expected to be in?

QUIST-ARCTON: Formally on the 19th of November, so it's in these two, three weeks before the election results are announced that people are a little concerned about what will happen. Because of course the real test is after the elections, when the results are announced, because back in August when the results of the first round were announced, there were gun battles, literally firefights on the streets here in the capital, Kinshasa, between the private armies that both the presidential candidates still have.

So that's what many Congolese are nervous about. That's what the United Nations, the biggest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, is also weary about. So appeals for calm have gone out throughout the campaign and in the run-up to election day today.

ELLIOTT: Today, Reuters is reporting some violence and that even government officials blocked roads and kept voters from the polls outside of the capital. What are you hearing about those reports today?

QUIST-ARCTON: We're told that there were isolated incidents of violence in the east, and that's the volatile area of Congo where things are still not under control. And we were told also that there were a couple of incidents in the north.

So the election has been generally peaceful. But of course there has been a history of violence in the past decade here in Congo, especially in the lawless east. And that is one of the priorities here in Congo, to pacify the east and then to try and rebuild this country that is potentially hugely rich. Mineral heaven, the Congo is, and yet the people are so desperately poor. Both candidates say that they are going to rebuild and reunite Congo. That is the huge challenge for this nation.

ELLIOTT: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Kinshasa. Thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Pleasure.

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