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Thousands Turn Out to Greet Tshisekedi's Return to Congo - 2003-09-29

One of the Democratic Republic of Congo's most popular politicians has returned home after almost two years of self-imposed exile. Etienne Tshisekedi, who was once prime minister and opponent of dictator Mobuto Sese Seko, was greeted by thousands of supporters who expect him to run for election in two years.

The streets of Kinshasa were jammed on Sunday as thousands of people turned out to catch a glimpse of their hero's triumphal return.

Etienne Tshisekedi was back from two years of self-imposed exile in South Africa, where he had participated in marathon talks over the Congolese peace process that has ended almost five years of war.

Mr. Tshisekedi is expected to contest what are already being proclaimed as free and fair elections in two years' time.

Mr. Tshisekedi is a popular favorite. He was prime minister during the rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko, but was a constant thorn in the side of the strongman, whom he eventually marched against.

As leader of the Union of Democracy and Social Progress party that bills itself as representing the impoverished, Mr. Tshisekedi is expected to plunge quickly back into the war-battered nation's politics.

Mr. Tshisekedi had been left out of Congo's power-sharing arrangement, with the nomination of the vice president for the civilian opposition in Joseph Kabila's new government going to one of Mr. Kabila's allies.

This had caused considerable anger on the streets of Kinshasa, and among Congo's poor people in general. His sidelining had also caused much consternation among his fellow ethnic Kasaians, who inhabit the diamond-rich southern provinces of Kasai.

But the reception that Mr. Tshisekedi received in Kinshasa was seen as an indication that he is still a political force to be reckoned with. After his arrival at Kinshasa's main airport, he said he planned to work toward winning elections in two years, despite not being a working member of the new transitional government of national reconciliation.

Some Western diplomats are encouraged by his return, sensing he could speak for Congo's millions of disenfranchised people.

The fact that President Kabila appears happy for Mr. Tshisekedi to operate, despite not being a part of the new political set-up, is also seen as an encouraging sign.

But whether Mr. Tshisekedi will be able to unite his fractured party, and not slip back into health problems that have dogged him, remains to be seen.