DR Congo militias lay down arms

From: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/5219076.stm

One of the last obstacles to peaceful elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday has been removed.

The three main militia groups in the troubled eastern province of Ituri have agreed to lay down arms and begin integrating into the Congolese army.

The deal between rebels and the government, it is hoped, will allow tens of thousands of people to vote.

European Union observers are warning of logistical problems ahead of the first fully democratic polls for 40 years.

In a statement on Wednesday, the EU observer mission urged the Electoral Commission to publish the full list of 50,000 polling stations.

Some of the locations are not on a clear list and if voters and observers do not know where they are it makes fraud much easier, the EU mission says.

The mission is also worried about the deployment at polling stations of other security forces in addition to police, and has expressed concerns about how the vote count will work.

In Kinshasa, a fire broke out at the compound of one of the main presidential candidates, Jena-Pierre Bemba - who was reported to be campaigning in another part of the capital.

It is unclear what caused the fire or how many injuries there were, but it has now been put out.

Morale boost

The BBC's Karen Allen in eastern DR Congo says that in return for an amnesty from prosecution for crimes against the state, the coalition of three rebel groups, known as the Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC), has agreed to facilitate the free movement of people on polling day and eventually become part of the Congolese army.

She says many refugees are displaced and living in camps or in the jungles.

In the past few weeks tens of thousands of people have fled their homes to escape fighting between the Congolese army and militia in Ituri, a troubled and mineral-rich region.

It is not yet known exactly how routes will be secured to enable people to vote, our correspondent adds.

But Ambassador Haile Menkerios from the UN's peace team, who helped broker the deal, described it as a morale boost to the population ahead of historic elections.

Many of the main presidential candidates are due back in the capital, Kinshasa, on Thursday as their campaigns draw to a close.

Incumbent President Joseph Kabila is the favourite to win the presidential vote in elections described by EU envoy Aldo Ajello as crucial for the continent.

"Congo is not (just) a country, it's almost a continent - it has borders with nine African countries. And peace in Congo means peace in all central Africa. So I think the importance of these elections is evident to everybody," he told the BBC.