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Opposition Leader Plans to Return to Congo in September


After failing to meet a Wednesday deadline to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senator and opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba now says he will return to the country by mid-September. Bemba fled to Portugal in April, after his men fought with President Joseph Kabila's forces in a two-day street battle that left hundreds dead. Bemba's spokesman says it may still be unsafe for the senator to return to his homeland, but government ministers say he has nothing to fear. Selah Hennessy reports from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Moise Musangana is Bemba's spokesman. He says opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba needs assurances from the DRC's government that Bemba will be safe on his return.

He says the authorities in Kinshasa need to signal that they are ready to accept Bemba and that they can assure his basic safety.

He says as soon as Bemba feels his security in Congo is ensured, he will jump on the first plane to Kinshasa.

Bemba told reporters on Wednesday that he will return by September 15, when parliament, which is now in recess, will reconvene.

Bemba was accused of high treason in March after his armed guard clashed with government security forces in the country's capital, leaving at least 200 dead.

Government Minister Solange Ghonda says parliament still has to decide how to deal with Bemba. But she says it is unlikely he will be prosecuted.

"What would we get out of hurting somebody else? What we need is to build this nation. It's time for us to put all the politics aside and then to move forward building a strong nation," she said.

She says Bemba should stop worrying about his own security, and should instead return to Kinshasa and fulfill his role as a senator.

"We should not waste our time trying to worry about this politician's safety. We have millions of people suffering today, and I think that should be our priority," she said.

As a senator, Bemba is immune from charges, but the government has not said whether his immunity will be stripped following the missed deadline.

This is the second Senate deadline that Bemba has failed to meet since fleeing to Portugal. He already received a 45-day extension after exceeding an initial 60-day leave of absence.

Gus Selassie, an analyst at the international research group Global Insight, says Bemba, who came in second in presidential elections last year, seems to have accepted that he will have to make concessions if he is to return to his homeland.

"He seems to have accepted the situation that the election is a lost cause now and his only viable alternative is for him to remain as a political opposition and he has to make some concessions, including giving up his security team and hand over some of his arms to the government," he said.

But Selassie adds that Bemba's promise to return to the Congo by September is not a guarantee that he will actually show up.

"He was making similar statements before the expiration of the last deadline, so it is difficult to predict whether he will actually keep his promise," he said.

Bemba was a rebel leader during Congo's five-year civil war, which left more than four million people dead.

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