Joseph Kabila, the young and little-known son of slain Congolese leader Laurent Kabila, was sworn in Friday as president of this war-divided Central African nation, 10 days after the assassination of his father.
Government officials, traditional leaders and other dignitaries looked on at the Palace of the Nation as Joseph Kabila pledged to uphold the constitution, unite the Congolese people and defend the country's borders.
After the ceremony conducted before the Supreme Court, Kabila was expected to address the nation for the first time. Raised in Tanzania and Uganda, he remains a mystery to most people in Congo, who aren't even certain about his age.
"We have never heard him speak. We want to hear his program," said Robert Disashi, a traditional leader in a dark blue suit with a leopard tooth necklace around his neck, as he arrived at the Palace of the Nation for the ceremony. "We aspire for nothing but peace."
The fallen president's inner circle was quick to fill the power vacuum after President Laurent Kabila was gunned down 10 days ago by one of his own bodyguards, but has since fretted over legal details of succession in the troubled country which has never enjoyed a peaceful power transfer.
Initially scheduled for Wednesday, the inauguration was delayed once to allow the slain Kabila's hand-picked parliament to approve his son's ascension, and once again to give the Supreme Court time to craft the wording of the oath of office.
"Everything is set," court official Lwonge Kabinda Ngoy said Thursday, promising there would be no more legal delays.
Laurent Kabila suspended the country's constitution when he toppled the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, leaving no blueprint for a handover of power.
The selection of Joseph Kabila, an army major general believed to be in his late 20s, was met with widespread fears that a figurehead had been chosen, leaving little hope for an end to a 2 1/2-year civil war and a revival of the shattered economy.
But some foreign officials view the death of Laurent Kabila, who continued Mobutu's corrupt and self-serving policies, as a sudden opportunity for peace.
Louis Michel, foreign minister of former colonial ruler Belgium, launched a tour of the region after Kabila's funeral, urging Congo's warring parties to seize the moment and enter a dialogue to end the war.
After meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali on Thursday, Michel called the sudden power transfer "a new element, which can justify a new space to discuss ... peace."
Joseph Kabila told U.N. special representative Kamel Morjaneon on Thursday he is open to a new round of peace talks and eventual democratic elections in Congo. But he added "this will not be possible as long as foreign troops occupied part of his territory," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said at the world body's headquarters in New York.
Congo's civil wr began in August 1998 when Laurent Kabila's main sponsors, Uganda and Rwanda, turned against him and began supporting an anti-government rebellion. He held onto power and kept the rebels at bay with the help of new allies Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, who have pledged to keep their forces in Congo to defend Kabila's son.
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