Residents flee
 
People fled their homes and schools and ministries were closed amid heavy gunfights.

 

"Mr. Bemba ... absolutely has not made any demand for asylum"

Kenneth Pedro, South Africa's deputy ambassador in DR Congo
Gunfire and loud explosions from shells or mortars were heard early on Friday in the northern district of Gombe in Kinshasa, where Bemba's residence is located, the AFP news agency reported.

 

The battles, the first in the city since the landmark election last year, started when Bemba's forces defied a government order to disarm.

 

Smoke rose from the area of an oil refinery early on Friday, a resident said, and another witness reported seeing another plume of smoke coming from around Bemba's residence in Gombe district which has seen the worst of the fighting.

 

Several people, including civilians, were killed in the fighting, a hospital doctor and other witnesses said.

 

'Temporary refuge'

 

Members of the presidential guard were deployed in force in the streets at dawn, with several armoured cars and tanks.

 

Fighting started after Bemba's men defied
a
 government order to disarm[AFP]

An oil truck was hit by a mortar shell and exploded in flames near Ndolo air base in Gombe, diplomatic sources said. A thick plume of smoke was visible from more than 10km away.

 

At least two civilians were killed and a dozen wounded in clashes on Thursday in Kinshasa, which had been calm since fighting after last year's elections left about 30 people dead.

 

"Mr. Bemba has been taken in temporarily. He absolutely has not made any demand for asylum," Kenneth Pedro, South Africa's deputy ambassador in DR Congo, told AFP.

 

"He didn't feel safe in his home. He wanted to be able to continue working. He is our guest. It will be temporary."

 

Call for calm

 
Before taking refuge, Bemba said on Okapi, a UN radio station: "I am asking that the situation calms down."

 

He called on his soldiers "to return to their positions and that the FARDC [Congo's army] does not provoke them".

 

"I ask the soldiers of the FARDC not to fire on my soldiers. We must talk like politicians," he added.

 

After the broadcast, explosions and gunfire could still be heard in the neighbourhood around the supreme court in Kinshasa's administrative district, close to one of Bemba's residences.

 
Tensions have been rising in Kinshasa since the government of President Kabila announced last week that it intended to scale down the military force protecting Bemba.

 

Kabila ordered Bemba to reduce his security detail to 12 police officers. At the moment his armed guards number in the thousands.

 

Bemba's supporters say he is entitled to "an appropriate personal guard" under a UN-brokered deal signed before last October's vote.

 

Bemba and Azarias Ruberwa, whose rebel movements battled Kinshasa until 2003, were vice-presidents during a post-war transition to democratic rule overseen by the United Nations.

 

The transition ended last year with the first democratic elections in more than four decades. Kabila was inaugurated as president in December following a second round victory over Bemba.

 

Dozens of people were killed in fighting between Bemba's forces and Kabila's presidential guard before the run-off vote between the two men in October.

Source: Agencies