DR Congo candidates meet on eve of vote amid unrest fears

DRC heads to the polls for tense, long-delayed presidential vote

DRC heads to the polls for tense, long-delayed presidential vote

President Joseph Kabila has long resisted giving up power, but Sunday's election was meant to usher in the country's first democratic transfer of power since they gained independence in 1960. Official results are to be announced by January 15, although preliminary returns are expected earlier than that.

RFI correspondent Kamanda Wa Kamanda, reporting from a polling booth at the Institute of Commerce in Kinshasa, said voting had begun smoothly in the capital in the early hours.

While turnout failed to reach 50 per cent at some polling stations, many voters said they were exhilarated at taking part in the first elections after the almost 18-year Kabila era.

Even if the opposition were unified, some Congolese said it would have no chance against Kabila's preferred successor, ruling party loyalist Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

The mob "then attacked the electoral official who died".

In Kisangani, the country's third-largest city, observers hired by the political parties slept on the floor or on desks at a polling station to keep their eye on the vote count, an AFP reporter said.

Critics, however, say the vote will be tarnished by fraud, and that Kabila could continue to rule from the sidelines.

The voting centre at Les Anges school in Kinshasa had not opened during the day because it did not have battery cables to power the voting machines and the centre did not have a voters' roll.

Polling stations were moved at the last minute, voters' lists were missing and a number of the new, largely unfamiliar voting machines in every province were not working, said Luc Lutala, spokesman for the Symotel civic group, which deployed 19,000 observers. The frontrunners include Kabila's champion Shadary, a hardline former interior minister facing European Union sanctions for a crackdown on protesters.

"I feel liberated, freed", said Victor Balibwa, a 53-year-old civil servant, casting his ballot in Lubumbashi, the country's mining capital in the southeast. Felix Tshisekedi, son of late opposition icon Etienne and head of Congo's most prominent opposition party, broke away to join forces with the party of Vital Kamerhe, who finished third in the 2011 election. Yesterday's election was marked by long queues, broken voting machines and torrential rain.

However, "the potential for violence is extremely high". s he warned.

The election should have taken place two years ago but was repeatedly postponed because of logistical problems, officials said. Confused voters didn't know where to go.

Twenty-one candidates are standing in the presidential election, which is taking place simultaneously with ballots for the national legislature and municipal bodies.

Gold, uranium, copper, cobalt and other riches are extracted from its soil, but little of that wealth trickles down to the poor.

In the last 22 years, it has twice been a battleground for wars drawing in armies from central and southern Africa.

The legacy of that era endures today in the DRC's eastern border region, where ruthless militias have carried out hundreds of rapes and killings.

While many polls closed in the evening, others stayed open to allow those waiting in line to cast their ballots and at least one polling station was just getting ready to open.

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

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