KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — An early-morning fire in Congo's capital destroyed nearly 80 percent of the capital city's voting machines just 10 days before the presidential election, officials said Thursday, saying the blaze appeared to be criminal but vowing that it would not disrupt the vote.

Congo's first use of voting machines on Dec. 23, a rarity in Africa, has caused concerns among the opposition, diplomats and experts about possible manipulation in favor of President Joseph Kabila's preferred successor. Kabila is stepping aside after taking power in 2001.

The electoral commission said the fire broke out at a warehouse in Kinshasa, adding that it was too early to declare the cause or the extent of the damage.

The fire destroyed equipment planned for use in Kinshasa, Congo's largest city with 4 million people. Nearly 8,000 of the capital's 10,368 voting machines were ruined, said Corneille Nangaa Yobeluo, president of the national electoral commission. He said despite the severity of the damage, the electoral commission would hold the elections as scheduled on Dec. 23.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said firefighters from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo helped put out the blaze.

"Preliminary reports indicate that polling station kits from Kinshasa and a large number of voting machines and electoral materials were destroyed in the fire," Haq said.

"We are encouraging all parties to assist in the holding of free and fair elections," he said. "Obviously, any sort of incidents like this are a cause for concern in that respect."

Kabila's chief adviser said the fire was a criminal one and said that polling booths were also burned. "The enemies of democracy have stepped it up a gear," Barnabe Kikaya said.

Congo's security minister said the voting machines would be replaced "very quickly."

"We cannot make quick conclusions but the criminal hypothesis is not to be dismissed," the minister, Henri Mova, said, noting that the fire had two starting points, suggesting a simultaneous beginning.

Mova was defiant in the face of a suspected effort to disrupt the election: "Those who tried it did not succeed."

Major questions remain about how Congo will be able to successfully use the voting machines in the infrastructure-starved country of 40 million voters, many without computer experience. More than 100,000 of the machines have been rolled out so far.

Campaigning in the final days before the vote turned violent this week. Security forces opened fire on supporters of opposition candidate Martin Fayulu on Wednesday in Kalemie, killing a young woman, said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

That followed similar reported violence in the southern city of Lubumbashi. On Wednesday, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo said the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general deplored the deaths and urged Congolese authorities to take the necessary steps to void further violence, noting "obstacles encountered by some opposition candidates during their efforts to hold public meetings in certain cities around the country."


Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations


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