March 30, 2007 / 1:45 PM / in 12 years

Bemba to go to Portugal but no exile deal: diplomat

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo ex-warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba, accused of treason after his militia fought government forces, is expected to travel to Portugal this weekend but has no deal for exile there, the Portuguese ambassador said on Friday.

Congo's presidential soldiers (R) patrol the remains of former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba's military camp in downtown Kinshasa, March 28, 2007. Bemba, accused of treason after his militia fought government forces, is expected to travel to Portugal this weekend but has no deal for exile there, the Portuguese ambassador said on Friday. REUTERS/Joe Bavier

There have been intense diplomatic negotiations about the future of the former presidential contender, whose personal guard fought a two-day battle in the Congolese capital Kinshasa at the end of last week after refusing an order to disarm.

The clashes, in which up to 600 people were reported killed, were a blow to international hopes for a fast consolidation of democracy in Democratic Republic of Congo, following last year’s landmark elections in the former Belgian colony.

Bemba’s forces were routed, he took refuge with his family in the South African embassy and the government ordered his arrest for high treason. Diplomats said he would travel to Portugal, fuelling speculation he might go into long-term exile.

But Portugal’s embassy denied any exile deal.

“There’s no exile. He will leave this weekend in principle if all aspects of the agreements (for Bemba’s departure) are in place ... he’ll be there as a tourist,” Ambassador Alfredo Duarte Costa, told Reuters.

He added Bemba would go to Portugal for medical treatment. Aides have said he needs follow-up treatment for a leg fractured in December.

Negotiations with the Congolese government over the terms of his departure were continuing, but Costa gave no details.

Asked if or when Bemba might return to Congo, the ambassador added: “I can’t tell you that”.

Last week’s fighting was the worst in Kinshasa since Congo held its first free democratic elections in more than 40 years, aimed at restoring peace to the mineral-rich central African state after a 1998-2003 war.

FAMILY HAS VISAS

President Joseph Kabila won the poll. He has said those behind last week’s unrest would be hunted down.

But foreign ambassadors have criticized his government for what they called a premature and disproportionate use of military force to subdue Bemba’s men.

Costa said he believed Bemba already had a 90-day visa issued by Belgium for the 15 European countries that form part of the so-called Schengen treaty. A Schengen visa allows a traveler to visit any of these countries.

The 15 are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

Bemba had owned a house in Portugal since 1987, and he went there regularly, but he was not a Portuguese citizen, the ambassador said.

He added that Bemba’s wife and children, who were sheltering with him in the South African embassy in Kinshasa, already had 90-day tourist visas for Portugal.

Last week’s violence followed several days of an armed stand-off between Kabila’s government and hundreds of Bemba loyalists who defied an order to disarm under a plan to cut his security detail to 12 police officers.

Soldiers loyal to Kabila and Bemba had fought on several occasions in Kinshasa during last year’s elections in clashes which killed at least 30 people and wounded many more.

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