Kinshasa - Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila on Monday defended the use of force to quash what he described as an armed rebellion by militia loyal to former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba.

"Order had to be restored at any cost," Kabila said after deadly clashes last week in the capital Kinshasa that left 155 dead and 150 seriously wounded, according to a new toll from aid agency Caritas. The previous toll was for 120 dead.

In his first statement since the fighting, Kabila said that Bemba's fighters had been intent on seizing control of the capital, and that the dispute was military rather than political.

"You do not guarantee security through negotiation," he told reporters, in an apparent response to calls from the United Nations, the African Union and various countries for a dialogue between the two sides.

About 2 000 troops had fought Bemba's 700 fighters in the Gombe district of the capital on Thursday and Friday.

Bemba, who lost the presidential election in October to Kabila, had refused to have his vice-presidential bodyguard integrated into the regular army, arguing that his personal security could not be guaranteed.

The former rebel leader took refuge in the South African embassy in Kinshasa on Thursday.

Kabila accused Bemba of trying to put himself above the law. "It was totally unacceptable and the law has put him in his place," he added.

But he refused to say what would happen to his former vice-president, saying that a "judicial procedure" had been launched.

The government on Friday said that Bemba was being charged with high treason. Most of his fighters have fled or agreed to join government forces, but 107 took refuge at the United Nations mission here, the UN said.

Bemba for his part said he was prepared to go into exile if his security could not be guaranteed by Kinshasa.

In an interview with the Paris daily Le Monde he accused Kabila of wanting to "get rid" of him.

"We are at a turning point in our history, because if they continue to decapitate the opposition, a new dictatorship will be established," he said.

But Kabila denied any intention to make the DRC a one-party state.

"I would be the last person to violate the constitution. Setting up a single party smacks of high treason," he said.

He reassured elected members of Bemba's opposition Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), some of whom claimed to have been threatened.

"The constitution will be respected," Kabila said, referring to guarantees of expression, assembly and demonstration. "The deputies of the MLC can rest easy."

The DRC leader also dismissed out of hand speculation that his military had employed a helping hand from foreign troops to subdue the opposition.

"That's ridiculous," he blasted. "Why is it every time that a military operation is successful in the DRC, it is necessary for there to have been foreign help?"

Witnesses had earlier told AFP they had seen soldiers wearing Angolan uniforms in certain areas around the capital during the fighting.

"The government will now have to show it can be responsible," a Western diplomat in Kinshasa said on Sunday.

"If you are going to have a rule of law the opposition must be allowed to exist without being threatened or fearing a witch-hunt."

Kinshasa newspapers on Monday welcomed the end of the conflict but expressed worries about the future of democracy in DRC.

"We want peace, but this is not possible without everyone (working for it)," said Tshisuaka, an employee of a security company in Kinshasa.

"The important thing is to see people getting back on with things after such awful scenes," he said, adding that peace could be built collectively. - Sapa-AFP