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Congolese opposition leader and former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba is pictured after a news conference in Brussels, Belgium July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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By Amedee Mwarabu

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba returned home on Wednesday after a decade in prison in The Hague for a presidential run expected to pose a stiff challenge to President Joseph Kabila or his successor in December's election.

Bemba, whose war crimes convictions at the International Criminal Court (ICC) were quashed on appeal in May, touched down at Kinshasa's N'Djili airport where thousands of cheering supporters wore T-shirts, hats, scarves and robes bearing his image.

"The Congolese people have waited for this moment for a long time," said Toussaint Bodongo, a member of Bemba's MLC party. "Bemba will maybe bring the solution that we need to Congo."

The former vice president and warlord's return is expected to energise opposition in Democratic Republic of Congo to Kabila, who has been in power since his father's assassination in 2001 and is barred by constitutional term limits from standing for a new term.

Kabila has refused to commit publicly to not contesting the election. That has kept the country in suspense over whether he will choose someone else to represent his ruling coalition, paving the way for Congo's first democratic transition, or try to run again and risk a violent backlash.

Security forces have killed dozens of protesters since late 2016 when Kabila refused to step aside at the end of his mandate, saying elections needed more time to be organised. Militia violence in the eastern borderlands has surged since then.

The deadline to file candidacies is Aug. 8. Bemba said last week that he believes he is the strongest candidate to represent the opposition but would be willing to cede his place in favour of another candidate.

He could also see his eligibility to run challenged in the courts. The ruling coalition said last week he is disqualified from running by a witness tampering conviction at the ICC even though convictions for murder, rape and pillage committed by his militia in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002 were thrown out.

The invalidation of Bemba's candidacy would infuriate his supporters, especially in western Congo. His loss to Kabila in the 2006 election saw gunbattles in the streets of Kinshasa between his militiamen and government troops.

"If they try to exclude him, we know that's political," said Denise Vila, the provincial coordinator of the MLC's women's league. "We are going to fight so that Jean-Pierre Bemba stays in the race."

(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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Reuters