By Eddy Isango

Kinshasa - The personal armies of two former Congolese rebel leaders have refused to disband as promised, ignoring this week's deadline.

The personal guard of Jean-Pierre Bemba as well as that of Azarias Ruberwa, both of whom ran and lost in Congo's landmark presidential election in 2006, have continued their armed patrols, refusing to turn over the security of the ex-rebels to the country's police force by Thursday as promised.

A spokesperson for Bemba said that the senator's safety takes precedence. "Bemba was attacked three times during the election period and he can't accept to have his security be in the hands of people he doesn't know," said his spokesperson, Moise Musangana.

Congo's Defence Minister Chikez Diemu estimates that Bemba's battalion numbers 600, while that of Ruberwa is around 400.

"It's time to stop reverting to the use of force to solve our problems. We need to apply the rule of law," said Diemu.

The units loyal to the ex-rebels need to be integrated into the regular army, he said: "If they do not join the army, what will become of them? Will they keep on living as rebels?"

Congo, a mineral-rich Central African nation the size of Europe, has been wracked by years of war and decades of dictatorship. Last fall's presidential poll was the first free balloting in over 40 years, but it was not free of conflict.

When Joseph Kabila was declared the winner of the election, Bemba - who came in second - initially refused to stand down and his militia took to the streets, clashing with Kabila's security forces and killing at least two dozen civilians.

An agreement reached between Kabila and Bemba allowed the ex-warlord, who was recently elected senator, to keep his personal army until March. On Thursday, the militias were expected to register at an army camp, where they were to begin their integration into the Congolese security force, said a spokesperson for army chief Lt. Gen. Sungilanga Kisempia. - Sapa-AP