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UN calls for restraint on eve of Congo vote

Bullets fired by a member of the presidential guard kick up dust in front of a crowd of opposition supporters in Kinshasa
Bullets fired by a member of the presidential guard kick up dust in front of a crowd of opposition supporters in Kinshasa

By David Lewis and Jonny Hogg

KINSHASA (Reuters) - International organizations appealed for calm on the eve of Democratic Republic of Congo's presidential election, after a run-up tainted by violent street clashes and delayed poll preparations.

Concerns have been mounting about the central African country's readiness for its second post-war presidential contest, and what impact a troubled vote might have on efforts to stabilize the giant minerals-producing nation.

The European Union, the African Union and the United Nations called for restraint after several people were killed in clashes Saturday, the last day of campaigning.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday Congo's election was "crucial for the country's progress," and called on "all political leaders and the people ... to exercise restraint throughout the process to ensure that the elections are held in a peaceful and secure environment."

The EU observer mission accused police of denying President Joseph Kabila's main rival, Etienne Tshisekedi, his right to campaign in the capital after he was blocked by security forces at the airport Saturday.

Police had earlier banned rallies after violence erupted in the sprawling capital Kinshasa. The confirmed death toll for Saturday's violence has risen to three, according to U.N. sources, though Human Rights Watch said eight had been killed and about 70 wounded.

Tshisekedi Sunday accused international actors, including the head of the United Nations mission in Congo, of being against him, and said that, as his rally was blocked on Saturday, he would hold one later Sunday.

"The international community has (in Congo) supported Africa's worst dictatorships for 51 years," he said, adding he wanted UN mission chief Roger Meece, a former U.S. ambassador to Congo during the last election, to step down.

U.N. spokesman Mounoubai Madnodje dismissed the accusations.

The streets of Kinshasa were mostly quiet Sunday after the clashes the day before. Churches held regular Sunday services, street kiosks did brisk trade and residents sat drinking in the city's street bars.

By mid-afternoon, there was no sign of Tshisekedi's rally call being heeded though riot police were deployed at Kinshasa's main stadium where the rally was to be held, and there was a heavy police presence near Tshisekedi's residence.

SHOWDOWN

Enjoying the powers of incumbency, Kabila is seen as the favorite in the vote. But Tshisekedi, a veteran opposition leader who appeals to many poor Congolese that have not see any progress despite eight years of relative peace, has drawn large crowds as his campaign gathered momentum.

Tshisekedi said he would accept results if he lost in a free election but would call on people to "take their responsibility" if the poll was flawed, a reference to likely further street protests.

Human Rights Watch said Congo's Republican Guard had wounded dozens of people after opening fire on them Saturday, and at least eight people were killed. "We're still confirming, and the number of dead might be higher," Human Rights Watch researcher Ida Sawyer said.

Sawyer added that security forces had taken four bodies from the UDPS opposition headquarters where they had been brought following clashes. An eyewitness told Reuters police arrived at the UDPS offices in the early hours of Sunday morning, threatening supporters and taking away bodies.

Police officials were not available to comment.

Election workers were scrambling Sunday to get remaining ballots to polling stations after delays at all stages of the process. But the head of the electoral body said he expected the election to go ahead as planned.

"We would like to assure you 99 percent of things are working perfectly, that's our commitment to you," electoral commission chief Daniel Ngoy Mulunda said.

Congo's last war, in which millions died mainly of famine and disease, ended eight years ago. But the peace is fragile, with pockets of clashes across much of its east while ordinary Congolese complain of rampant corruption and slow development.

Resource firms like Freeport McMoRan and ENRC operate in Congo, a big copper and cobalt producer with ambitions of developing an oil industry, but the country is seen as one of the world's riskiest in which to do business.

(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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