Congo mediators say no deal before Christmas, talks on hold

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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo President Joseph Kabila and opposition parties have failed to resolve the country's political impasse before Christmas and will resume talks next week, mediators said Saturday after a diplomatic marathon.

The announcement came after representatives worked overnight until 5:30 a.m. to find an agreement on how and when Kabila will leave power after 15 years at the helm of this vast Central African nation.

Kabila was due to leave office on Dec. 19 but the November presidential election was delayed indefinitely. He is barred from running again, and critics accuse him of delaying the vote to extend his rule. His government says it can't organize a proper election until early 2018.

Tensions over Kabila's extended rule have led to violent demonstrations this year, killing at least 40 people last week alone, according to the United Nations. The U.N. has urged Congolese security forces to use restraint and allow opposition protesters to voice their dissent.

Negotiations spearheaded by the Catholic church began Dec. 8 in a last-ditch effort to find a deal before the end of Kabila's mandate and prevent political violence from engulfing the country.

Last week the Catholic officials who are part of the body known as CENCO gave an ultimatum to the two sides to settle before Christmas, but again the talks are on hold.

"We still need a little time. While the bishops will travel to celebrate Christmas with their parishes, the CENCO secretariat will carry on putting the text together," said Monsignor Marcel Utembi, the president of the CENCO. "We think that Friday (30th) will be the day everyone awaits when we will adopt the political agreement."

Utembi said the most recent negotiations did make a major breakthrough — a commitment to respect the constitution — which alludes to speculation that Kabila aims to change the constitution and run for a third term.

His optimism, though, was not shared by all. According to several opposition members, the few remaining sticking points could be enough to sink the deal. The opposition coalition insists they must be given the prime minister's office and the electoral commission must be reformed.

"I cannot be certain (a deal) will happen. If they don't concede that we get the prime minister office, we will not sign," said Martin Fayulu, an opposition leader.

He also said the government side "retracted their commitment to promise that Kabila will not go for a third term."

Even if a deal is signed, the potential for conflict in Congo remains.

"We will only be satisfied the day the transfer of power will happen," said Felix Tshisekedi, a leader of the opposition coalition and son of longtime opposition icon Etienne Tshisekedi. "Even if the deal is signed, implementing will be the hardest part."

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