KINSHASA, Congo – Congo's electoral commission has delayed the country's long-awaited presidential election until Dec. 30, citing a recent fire that destroyed 80 percent of the voting machines in the capital.
The vote had been scheduled for Sunday. This is the latest of several delays in the election originally scheduled for late 2016, amid opposition concerns that President Joseph Kabila was looking for ways to stay in power.
After last week's fire destroyed some 8,000 voting machines in Kinshasa, officials found replacement machines but had to get 5 million new ballots printed, said Corneille Nangaa, head of the national electoral commission.
He called on the country of some 40 million voters for calm.
Tensions have risen in Congo ahead of the election.
On Wednesday the governor of Kinshasa, Andre Kimbuta, banned all election rallies in the capital, citing security concerns. That prevented main opposition leader Martin Fayulu from holding a rally. Thousands of angry supporters gathered but police dispersed them with tear gas.
Several people have been killed in recent days at chaotic opposition rallies in various parts of the country, leading the U.N. Security Council to issue a statement this week calling on Congo's government to "swiftly investigate." The council also called for a "violence-free environment."
On Dec. 12, the U.N.'s special representative in Congo denounced "the obstacles encountered by some opposition candidates during their efforts to hold public meetings in certain cities around the country." Among several incidents, Fayulu was prevented from landing in Kindu where he was scheduled hold a rally on Dec. 9, according to his campaign manager, Pierre Lumbi.
"I am concerned by the growing tensions ... and the risk of escalating violence that could lead to the commission of grave crimes," the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement on Thursday. She warned that anyone who "incites or participates in mass violence" could be prosecuted.
Other observers have expressed concern over whether adequate election materials have been distributed across the vast country that is more than three times the size of Texas.
Even before the delay was announced, some observers criticized the Kabila government for not making adequate preparations for the vote.
"We had seven years to prepare these elections and at the last minute the electoral commission gives the impression they are not ready for the vote," said Rev. Jean Marie Bomengola with the Episcopal Bishops Conference, which plans to deploy 40,000 election observers.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed.
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