One-time warlord and former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Wednesday after an 11-year absence.
He arrived at Kinshasa's airport from Belgium aboard a private plane. Hundreds of police equipped with anti-riot gear were deployed in central Kinshasa and at the airport, located 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the DRC capital.
In June, Bemba, 55, was acquitted of war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC) after spending a decade behind bars. He had spent the last month with his wife and children in Brussels following his release.
He is expected to submit his candidacy in the country's presidential election, which is set to take place on December 23. The deadline to file candidacies is August 8.
"The Congolese people have waited for this moment for a long time," said Toussaint Bodongo, a member of Bemba's Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC). "Bemba will maybe bring the solution that we need to Congo."
Acquitted of war crimes
Bemba sent his militia to the Central African Republic in October 2002 to aid then-President Ange-Felix Patasse. Patasse was battling with a series of coup attempts in the early 2000s and was eventually overthrown in 2003.
Bemba was arrested at the ICC's request in 2008. During his trial in June 2016, ICC judges said he failed to stop a series of "sadistic and cruel" rapes and murders as well as pillaging by his soldiers when he was one of four vice presidents in the DR Congo's transitional government from 2003 to 2006.
After almost a decade in custody awaiting trial, the ICC sentenced him to 18 years in prison, the longest sentence ever handed down by the court. He was found guilty on two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes. But upon appeal, the court ruled that he was not criminally liable for crimes committed by his troops.
He still awaits a final sentencing at the ICC in a separate witness tampering case, in which he received a one-year jail sentence and was fined €300,000 ($350,000) in 2017 for bribing witnesses in his war crimes trial.
Political chaos on the horizon?
Bemba's return is expected to energize the opposition in the DRC to President Joseph Kabila or his successor in December's election.
Kabila, 47, has been in power since his father's assassination in 2001, presiding over the mineral-rich nation with a reputation for corruption, inequality and unrest. He was supposed to step down after his second elected term ended in 2016, but he has continually delayed elections, exercising a clause in the country's constitution that enabled him to stay in power until a successor is elected.
Security forces have killed dozens of protesters since Kabila's refusal to step aside in 2016. Kabila has also failed to say publicly that he will not seek re-election, a move that could escalate the conflict.
Bemba said he believed he is the strongest opposition candidate but would be willing to make way for another candidate. His eligibility could also be challenged in the courts. The ruling coalition said last week he is disqualified from running due to his witness tampering conviction.
An invalidation of Bemba's candidacy could enrage his supporters, especially those in western Congo. His loss to Kabila in the 2006 election saw gun clashes in the streets of Kinshasa between his militiamen and government troops.
The DRC has never known a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence in 1960. Some fear that the December elections will trigger a bloody conflict.
dv/rt (AFP, Reuters)