DR Congo on edge ahead of mass protest

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A vendor sits at a bus stand with pictures of President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo 31 December 2016.

A vendor sits at a bus stand with pictures of President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo 31 December 2016.

KINSASHA - A heavy police presence is expected in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital Kinshasa on Sunday ahead of planned protests demanding that President Joseph Kabila leave power.

Catholic church leaders have called for a mass peaceful demonstration against Kabila&39;s 17-year rule, three weeks after a similar protest on New Year&39;s Eve that ended in deadly violence.

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Police installed roadblocks on major routes into the capital on Saturday, causing traffic jams, while armed officers searched vehicles and conducted ID checks, including on the main road through the business district.

The church call has been backed by the head of the Muslim community in DR Congo, which urged authorities to allow the march to take place despite no official permission being granted.

"I ask the authorities to avoid repressing the march," Cheikh Ali Mwinyi M&39;Kuu, a legal representative of the Muslim community, told AFP on Saturday.

"If they decide to repress, there will be no peace. But if they let the march take place, they will respect the constitution and peace will prevail."

The previous anti-Kabila march, on 31 December, descended into a bloody crackdown after police and security forces opened fire on demonstrators.

Protest organisers said 12 people were killed, while the United Nations reported at least five dead. The authorities said no deaths that day were linked to the demonstration.

The country&39;s powerful Catholic Church, one of the few institutions to nationally enjoy broad credibility, condemned what it called "barbarism" and the UN and France sounded their concern over the death toll.

Terrified for my children

The church has been joined by a group of eight intellectuals in calling for the march to be peaceful.

The so-called "secular committee of coordination" has called on people to march after mass "with our peace branches, our Bibles, our rosaries, our crucifixes, to save the Congo".

Arrest warrants have been issued against at least five members of the committee, a magistrate told AFP, prompting them to go into hiding.

"We&39;re scared. I&39;m just like everyone else, I&39;m scared. I&39;m terrified for my children, who have been alone since 28 December," said Kandolo, a member of the group in Kinshasa.

The committee has called for the release of political prisoners, to allow the return of exiled political opponents and, above all, a guarantee that Kabila will stand down and not seek a third term.

Kabila, 46, has been in power since 2001, at the helm of a regime widely criticised for corruption, repression and incompetence.

His constitutional term in office expired in December 2016, but he stayed on -- a move that stoked a bloody spiral of violence.

Under an agreement brokered by the Catholic church, he was allowed to stay in office provided new elections were held in 2017.

The authorities later said organisational problems meant that the vote would be held on 23 December 2018 -- a postponement that has angered Western nations, but one that they have reluctantly accepted.