The Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday began counting ballots from a presidential election marked by delays and fears of violence and vote-rigging, straining hopes for its first-ever peaceful transfer of power.

Sunday’s elections went ahead after two years of delays and sporadic clashes in the unstable country, but the influential national conference of Catholic bishops declared the vote had been “relatively calm.”

Among reported incidents, some electoral observers were harassed and a clash took in the restive eastern province of South Kivu that left four people dead.

The DRC has never had a peaceful transition of leader since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

Worries of a new spiral into violence deepened after President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, refused to quit two years ago when his constitutionally-declared limit expired.

Tension and suspicion were further stoked by repeated delays, a bloody crackdown on anti-Kabila protests and accusations that electronic voting machines would help to rig the result.

But Kabila appeared on public television late Sunday to congratulate the Congolese for having voted “in peace and dignity”.

Provisional results are due to be announced on January 6, final results on January 15 and the new president sworn in on January 18.

From Kinshasa to Goma, 2000 kilometres further east, polling stations already put up first results on Monday morning.

In Kisangani, the country’s third-largest city, observers hired by the political parties slept on the floor or on desks at a polling station to keep their eye on the vote count, an AFP reporter said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Catholic Church observers, who were present at 78% of polling stations, said some had been forced to leave the voting centres.

“We had cases where our observers were molested and violated,” Luc Lutala told AFP Monday morning.

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