(Recasts with U.N. evacuating residents)
By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, March 22 (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers in Congo evacuated more than 450 civilians from part of the capital Kinshasa on Thursday after gunbattles between a former rebel faction and government troops, a senior U.N. official said.
"So far we have evacuated 450 people," the official from the U.N. mission in Congo (MONUC) told Reuters, asking not to be named. The civilians -- some of them injured -- were taken in armoured personnel carriers to MONUC’s headquarters in Kinshasa.
Gunfire and explosions rang out for much of the day as armed followers of former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba battled government soldiers in the first clashes in Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital since landmark elections last year.
The shooting broke out after Bemba’s personal militia defied an order from President Joseph Kabila’s government last week to disband after the polls, meant to bring peace to the vast, war-battered central African nation.
Bemba himself, who earlier appealed on U.N. radio for an end to the fighting, had taken refuge in the South African embassy, a spokesman for South Africa’s foreign ministry said.
It was not immediately clear who was being taken to the MONUC headquarters but the U.N. mission has agreements to evacuate individuals including senior diplomats and their families in the event of fighting in Kinshasa.
Some of those brought to the mission headquarters were injured, the U.N. official said. Buildings including a downtown hotel popular with foreigners had been looted in the violence, a second U.N. source said.
U.N. radio said one person had been killed and several injured in a building on the main avenue where some of the fiercest fighting took place. A Reuters TV correspondent saw the body of one government soldier lying in the street.
William Swing, head of the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission, said the world body had called for a ceasefire.
"The two sides have accepted the principle, now it is a question of discipline," he told the radio.
The clashes were the first in the sprawling riverside capital, a Bemba stronghold, since the elections. The polls were meant to draw a line under a 1998-2003 war that killed nearly 4 million people, mainly through hunger and disease.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was deeply alarmed by the unrest, his deputy spokeswoman said, adding that MONUC was ready to help the government restore order.
Dozens of people were killed last year in fighting between Bemba’s forces and Kabila’s presidential guard before an October second-round run-off between the two men.
Kabila, who took office when his father was assassinated in 2001 and won last year’s polls, has ordered Bemba to slash his security detail to just 12 police officers.
The former rebel’s supporters say he has the right to "an appropriate personal guard" under a U.N.-brokered deal signed before October’s presidential runoff. (Additional reporting by Eric Onstad in Johannesburg and Evelyn Leopold in New York)