Congo Inaugurates First Freely Elected President in More Than 40 Years

Congo inaugurated Joseph Kabila as its first freely elected president in more than four decades Wednesday, installing a rebel leader's son who ushered in a plan to end years of fighting to help the country take a place among the world's democracies.

Kabila, 35, was sworn in by the magistrates of the Supreme court in front of thousands of onlookers shading themselves from the sun under umbrellas in the national colors of blue, red and yellow.

Kabila took his oath after a series of prayers from different faiths — including Muslim, Christian and the indigenous Kimbanguist Church.

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Rich in cobalt, diamonds, copper, gold and other minerals, Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960 and was ruled for 32 years by Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who plundered the nation's wealth, pocketing billions. Kabila's father helped depose Mobutu, but was then assassinated, leaving his son in power.

The younger Kabila signed peace accords to end 1998-2002 wars that drew in the armies of at least six countries, and established the national-unity government he heads. Since then, the vast country has been trying to organize elections and progress to a democratic government, but has been hampered by logistical delays and continued fighting.

A series of conflicts and street clashes have marred the transition and the election — often with units of the army battling each other. But the violence never fully derailed the process started four years ago.

Kabila won a close October run-off election against Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord and one of four transitional vice presidents.

Most of Bemba's personal guard has been garrisoned about 50 miles outside of the capital since the victory was formalized by the supreme court Nov. 27, a precaution against fighting after forces loyal to Kabila and Bemba battled before the election.