Voters of the Democratic Republic of Congo head to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president and parliament in what they hope will be the country's first fully democratic vote since independence.
The elections are part of the U.N.-led three-year transitional administration expected to end more than four decades of corruption, dictatorship and wars that have killed more than four million people.
"We are ready for elections on Sunday," Deputy U.N. Special Representative for Congo Ross Mountain said on Friday, after supporters of one presidential candidate torched buildings and attacked police and journalists in the river-side capital, Kinshasa, in the last day of campaigning. "We deplore these incidents, but you know it could have been worse."
MONUC, the U.N. mission in Congo, is the largest of the 18 U.N.-peacekeeping missions -- 17,000-strong, deployed to protect the elections. There also are 60,000 Congolese policemen and a 2,000-strong European Union military force added last month.
The military mission costs the U.N. more than $1 billion a year, with the international community footing the $460 million bill for Sunday's elections alone.
The U.N. said security and logistics were in place to allow the 25 million registered voters to cast ballots at 50,000 polling points across the huge nation, which is the size of Western Europe.
Fears that violence could disrupt the polls have dogged preparations for the vote in the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony that is struggling to shake off the effects of a devastating war that broke out following the ouster of U.S.-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
The 1998 insurrection by rebels linked to Rwanda and Uganda triggered a conflict involving six nations: The devastating result has been 4 million people dead and millions of internally displaced and refugees.
A U.N.-brokered peace deal was signed in 2003, but rebel and militia groups still terrorixe parts of Congo, especially in the east.
"It is vital for the country's future that these elections, which are a symbol of hope for the whole of Africa, should be credible and transparent,'" U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. "History will pass a severe judgment on anyone who tries to disrupt or otherwise undermine the elections."
More than 1,200 international observers will monitor the voting, from groups including the European Union, the African Union, the Development Community of Southern Africa and the Carter Center in Atlanta, headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The United States is sending an observation team headed by Jendayi Frazer, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa.
Congo's President Joseph Kabila, who took power after his father Laurent was assassinated in 2001, and who has led the country through a troubled peace process, is viewed as frontrunner out of the 32 candidates.
His challengers include former rebel leaders like Bemba who have served with him as transition leaders. Opposition parties have accused the international community and the electoral commission of being biased in favor of Kabila, allegations strongly denied by the U.N.
Congo's influential Catholic Church warned the country's electoral authorities about the conditions for free and fair elections. Meanwhile, more than 30 people have died in political violence during the month of campaigning by 33 presidential and thousands of legislative candidates.
"The elections are the occasion for a change," said Tony Bloomberg, the UNICEF representative in the country, told ABC News. "But the international community has the duty to help the new government to address problems like education and health service, which are still unavailable for large parts of the population."
Congo's immense wealth in natural resources may represent a chance for the country to emerge from its troubled recent past. Ileka Atoki, Congo's UN envoy, said companies are "lining up" to invest in the country and extract the nation's untapped gold, zinc, tin, nickel, uranium, oil and timber reserves, plus cobalt -- the country has two-thirds of the world's reserves -- and industrial diamonds.