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DR Congo candidates meet on eve of vote amid unrest fears

Voters are due to cast their ballots on Sunday to decide who will replace incumbent President Joseph Kabila, stepping aside after nearly 18 years at the helm.

FILE: DRC President Felix Tshisekedi. Picture: @fatshi13/Twitter.

KINSHASA – Two opposition frontrunners for DR Congo's long-awaited vote met election officials Saturday, as they wrangled over signing a code of conduct on the eve of a poll that has stirred fears of violence in the volatile nation.

Voters are due to cast their ballots on Sunday to decide who will replace incumbent President Joseph Kabila, stepping aside after nearly 18 years at the helm of the vast, resource rich nation that has not known a peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.

With tensions rising before the vote, the Independent National Election Commission (CENI) met opposition heavyweights Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi, as well as Kabila's preferred successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, urging them to sign a pact aimed at preventing post-election violence.

The text, which has not been seen by AFP, is a "commitment to peace, for transparent, calm and non-violent elections", according to the head of the commission, Corneille Nangaa.

But Fayulu said both he and Tshisekedi had declined to sign the pledge as they tussle with officials over suggested changes to the text.

They have promised to return later Saturday "to sign the agreement incorporating the amendments", said Fayulu, until recently a little-known legislator and former oil executive, who met election officials and observers for a previous round of talks on Friday.

Fears of unrest have soared after a warehouse fire destroyed thousands of voting machines earmarked for the capital Kinshasa, prompting the election commission to order a last-minute postponement of the vote from 23 to 30 December, after they were already delayed by two years.

On Wednesday, CENI declared the vote would be postponed again in violence-hit parts of the country, while insisting the rest of the national vote would go ahead.

The announcement prompted Lamuka, a coalition of parties supporting Fayulu, to call for cities to be brought to a standstill on Friday.

Those protest calls did not gain much traction, but there was violence in the eastern province of North Kivu, one of the regions where voting has been postponed.

Around 1.25 million people in North Kivu and the southwestern territory of Yumbi are affected by the postponement, out of a national electoral roll of 40 million.

One demonstrator was shot dead in the city of Beni and four were wounded, local sources said.

'Fear Covers Our Hearts'

DR Congo is mired in poverty, despite mineral riches ranging from gold and uranium to copper and cobalt. The nation has been a battleground for regional wars twice in the past 22 years.

Kabila took office in 2001 at the age of just 29, succeeding his president father, Laurent-Desire, who was assassinated by a bodyguard.

The presidential election - its first in seven years - coincides with voting for municipal and legislative bodies.

A question mark hangs over whether the vote will be credible.

The authorities have permitted some election monitors from fellow African countries but refused any financial or logistical help from the UN or western countries.

Tshisekedi, head of a veteran UDPS opposition party, has encouraged voters to remain near polling stations after voting ends.

But Congolese police on Saturday warned they would arrest anyone loitering near polling stations after they close.

"We appeal to the understanding of our fellow citizens to trust the various witnesses of the candidates, who have received accreditation for the vote and counting operations," said colonel Pierrot Mwana Mputu in comments broadcast by state television.

Earlier Saturday, church leaders from the country's powerful Christian denominations held a service calling for peace.

"Worries still loom over our heads and fear covers our hearts," said archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo.

"The divergence of ideas is no reason to set fire to the country."

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