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Kabila Warns of Catastrophic Consequences of No Vote on Constitution

Congo's President Joseph Kabila said Thursday that his country's voters must accept a proposed post-war constitution later this month if elections are to be held in 2006. During a rare news conference, the president said a "no" vote in the referendum would be catastrophic for the process of bringing democracy to a country torn apart by years of war and chaos.

With just 10 days remaining before the Democratic Republic of Congo's constitutional referendum, a crucial first step of the electoral process, President Joseph Kabila called a rare news conference in his presidential palace Thursday.

While noting the progress made in registering some 24 million people to vote in the polls, which should be the country's first democratic elections in over 40 years, Mr. Kabila was unambiguous about what was needed to move forward.

The 34 year-old president said voters must accept the proposed constitution if the country is going to hold elections next year, as called for by a string of peace agreements that ended Congo's five year war.

He drew comparisons with nearby Kenya, where voters last month rejected their proposed constitution in what was seen as a protest against the current ruling team. The no vote led to the dismissal of the government and sparked a political crisis.

The current government in Kinshasa is a fragile combination of Mr. Kabila's former supporters, rebels he fought against for years in the bush, politicians opposed to his party and representatives from civil society.

If the constitution is approved, Congo will then hold two rounds of elections before swearing in a new government by the end of June 2006.

Observers say the elections are also likely to be disrupted in the lawless east where thousands of gunmen continue to roam the bush, attacking civilians and soldiers of the fledgling national army.

President Kabila disagrees, saying his troops have the dangerous Ituri district pretty much under control and will have neutralized the remaining Mai Mai militia in Katanga by next year's elections. He says the government troops are also tackling some 10,000 Rwandan rebels in the east.

Congo's war was officially declared over 2.5 years ago. But fighting and insecurity means about 1,000 people continue to die every day, mostly from hunger and disease. This adds to the four million who have already died since 1998.