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Congo to Free Five Activists to Smooth Election Negotiations

FILE - Supporters of Congo opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, rear, hold up a cross that symbolizes no third term for DRC President Joseph Kabila, during a political rally in Kinshasa, DRC, July 31, 2016.

Democratic Republic of Congo will free five pro-democracy activists in the next few days, the justice minister said on Friday, to try to appease the opposition and ease negotiations over an election timetable after a delayed presidential vote.

Opponents accuse President Joseph Kabila of deliberately delaying the vote in order to cling to power beyond the end of his mandate in December, a charge his supporters deny.

Opposition leaders could not be reached for comment but Friday's news looked unlikely to appease the main opposition alliance, which dismissed a similar promise to release prisoners last week as insufficient and boycotted the talks.

Only four of the 24 prisoners named last week turned out to still be in jail, and several prominent political figures were not on the list of names.

Thambwe said on Friday that he expected those four to be released at the weekend.

Talks between the government, its political opponents and civil society representatives started this week after authorities said last weekend that a vote set for November could not be held before July as they enroll millions of new voters.

Authorities have arrested dozens of people in the last year, who the opposition deem political prisoners, and about 40 people were killed in January 2015 in protests over a possible election delay, drawing criticism from the United Nations.

Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba told reporters in the capital Kinshasa that five activists - four from the youth group Lucha based in the eastern city of Goma and one from Kinshasa-based pro-democracy group Filimbi - would soon be released.

"The formalities will be taken care of starting today, and they should be able to leave Makala prison in the next two or three days," he said.

Kabila took power when his father was assassinated in 2001, then won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011. Congo has not experienced a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.