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Protesters, Police Clash as Congo Prepares for Referendum on Constitution

Police and supporters of a "no" vote in Congo's upcoming constitutional referendum clashed Friday, with the police firing live rounds to disperse a demonstration. The violence erupted just days before the vast nation is due to hold the first democratic poll in 40 years and the debate over whether to accept a post-war constitution heats up.

Just days ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratic poll in over 40 years, the debate over whether to accept or reject the country's contentious but little known post-war constitution is heating up.

The tension turned into violence Friday as riot police armed with batons, tear gas and AK47 assault rifles broke up a demonstration calling for a no vote in Sunday's referendum.

As U.N. and Congolese human rights observers watched, the police seized Theodore Ngoy, the head of the "no" campaign and opened fire with their assault rifles to disperse the crowd of demonstrators, some of whom were throwing stones. Several were injured during the violence.

The referendum is a crucial first step in the lengthy and costly process of bringing democracy to Congo, after a war that has killed four million people, mostly from hunger and disease, since 1998.

If accepted, the referendum clears the way for local, parliamentary and presidential elections in Congo, as called for by the peace deals that ended the last five-year war in 2003.

If rejected, Congolese lawmakers will have to re-work the document and, analysts say, it would become impossible to hold the elections by mid-2006, as required.

President Joseph Kabila has said a "no" vote would be catastrophic and would require fresh rounds of negotiations. The U.N. and diplomatic missions that have invested vast amounts of time and money in the process are also keen to see a "yes" vote.

But critics of the government, which brought together the belligerents and political opposition but remains divided and, many say, corrupt, want to use the referendum to sanction those in power.

They also say the Congolese should not be asked to vote on a document few have ever heard about, let alone read.