DRC 'slipping back into dictatorship'

Kinshasa - Exactly 12 months on from violent clashes with government troops, exiled opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, pictured, says the DRC is slipping back into "dictatorship".

"I am living in forced exile," the senator told AFP in a phone interview from Portugal.

"Without necessarily seeking to eliminate me physically, the authorities are preventing my return."

Bemba says the senate president wrote to the prime minister in November 2007 asking for his return.

"There was no reply ... there is no dialogue with the powers-that-be," he says. "I get the impression a dictatorship is settling in."

According to diplomats more than 200 people were killed in fighting on March 22 and 23 last year between Bemba's supporters and the presidential guard after the former vice-president lost to Jospeh Kabila in historic 2006 elections.

Initially holed up at the South African embassy in Kinshasa, Bemba left under bullet-proof United Nations escort the following month - officially for treatment to an old leg injury.

He has since remained at his heavily secured villa in Quinta do Lago, on Portugal's Algarve, though a presidential adviser insists "Bemba can return".

In theory he enjoys parliamentary immunity, barring the senate lifting it.

Insisting that his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) has let the government get on with tackling the country's problems, Bemba says he has been taking time to reflect on events. - Sapa-AFP