December 14, 2016 / 1:58 PM / 3 years ago

Congo to suspend pro soccer matches over fears of political unrest

KINSHASA, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Congolese authorities have instructed the country’s professional soccer league to suspend matches for one month over fears the end of President Joseph Kabila’s mandate next week will spark stadium violence, the sports ministry said on Wednesday.

Some soccer stadiums in Democratic Republic of Congo have become hotbeds of anti-government activism. One popular chant heard at games warns Kabila that his mandate is over.

“This general situation in the country risks spilling into the stadiums,” Barthelemy Okito, secretary-general of the sports ministry, told Reuters, adding that the league had proved incapable of properly securing its sports arenas.

Kabila is required by constitutional term limits to step down on Dec. 19 but has said he plans to stay on until at least April 2018, the earliest the government says an election originally planned for last month can be organised.

His opponents accuse him of deliberately delaying the vote to cling to power - a charge he denies - and have vowed street protests to force him from office.

More than 50 people died in demonstrations in September over election delays and world powers fear protests this month could spark widespread violence in a country that has never experienced a peaceful transition of power.

Violence “could start at the stadium and spread to the city. It was like that in 1959,” Okito said, referring to riots against Belgian colonial rule that broke out in January 1959 outside the capital’s main soccer stadium and helped kindle the independence movement.

Congo’s Catholic Church is now mediating talks between representatives of Kabila’s coalition, opposition parties and civil society groups in a last-ditch effort to find a compromise.

Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Nellie Peyton/Mark Heinrich

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