Friday, August 04, 2006 - Congo ballots go up in flames - Aug 3, 2006
Congo ballots go up in flames
Election center responsible for one-quarter of capital's vote

Thursday, August 3, 2006; Posted: 7:11 p.m. EDT (23:11 GMT)

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -- A suspicious fire at a major Kinshasa election center during a third day of chaotic poll-counting Thursday deepened concerns over the transparency of the results of Congo's first free elections in more than 40 years.

Used and unused ballots were burned, along with other election material, outside an election office that was meant to process one-quarter of the capital's votes.

The Democratic Republic of Congo held presidential and parliamentary elections Sunday, hoping the vote would be a final move away from the African nation's 1998-2003 war, during which 4 million people were killed.

Voting took place amid relative calm, but the days after the polls, which cost more than $450 million and was protected by the United Nations' largest peacekeeping mission, have been marked by complaints and threats of challenges to the results.

At the center in N'Djili, a popular neighborhood in the capital, election workers said they had burned empty ballot boxes to clear up rubbish.

But a Reuters reporter saw the remains of burned ballot papers -- some used, others unused -- in the ashes outside a room littered with voting material.

"It would appear that something serious has taken place here. The key question is what is the size of the problem?" one international election observer said.

Election officials at the office were due to process votes coming from 1,400 polling stations -- one-quarter of Kinshasa's ballots -- before passing them to compilation centers for cross-checking and safekeeping in case the results are challenged.

One witness said that earlier, children had loaded ballots into U.N. trucks.

"It certainly raises concerns about the credibility and transparency of the process," the observer said. "It plays into the hands of those who question this process."

Congo's independent election commission was not immediately available for comment.

One of Congo's former rebel groups has complained of fraud during the polls. A major opposition party boycotted the elections, saying they would not be free and fair.

Observers said the voting might have gone well on election day, but that the process of collecting results from 50,000 polling stations had become chaotic.

Incumbent President Joseph Kabila is the favorite to win over former rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba, expected to finish second.

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