European Union prepares sanctions over Congo vote delay

Congolese opposition supporters chant slogans during a march to press President Joseph Kabila to step down in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo

By Robin Emmott LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union will prepare economic sanctions on the Democratic Republic of Congo unless it holds its delayed presidential and parliamentary elections next year, foreign ministers agreed on Monday. President Joseph Kabila was due to leave office at the end of his mandate in December but authorities have postponed the votes until April 2018, citing logistical problems. The delay sparked two days of protests in the capital Kinshasa last month that killed dozens of people. "There is a delay to elections that is not acceptable and I hope elections can take place in 2017," Belgium's Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told reporters. "We need an inclusive dialogue and not to resort to violence," said Reynders, whose country is Congo's former colonial power. EU foreign ministers said in a statement: "The EU will use all the means at its disposal, including individual restrictive measures" - diplomatic language for travel bans and asset freezes. Any sanctions would target "those responsible for serious human rights violations, those who promote violence and those who would try to obstruct a consensual and peaceful solution to the crisis". Foreign ministers tasked EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who coordinates the bloc's diplomacy, to draw up sanctions. Diplomats said these could target senior police and other members of the security forces, and potentially government officials at a later stage. The EU, a major donor of foreign aid as well as a big foreign investor and trade partner, is seeking an independent inquiry into the violence last month and wants talks on a new timetable for presidential and parliamentary elections. EU governments will also reduce the duration of diplomatic visas issued to officials, after Belgium cut its visas to six months. "Member states are already in agreement on the need to coordinate their approaches to the issuance of visas for holders of diplomatic and service passports," the statement said. Kabila, who came to power in 2001 when his father was assassinated, says he will respect the country's constitution but has yet to rule out attempting to change laws to enable him to run for a fresh term. Opponents fear he will follow the example of the presidents of neighboring Rwanda and Congo Republic, who changed their constitutions last year to allow themselves to stand for a third term. Hundreds of people have also died since last year in Burundi, where the EU has also imposed sanctions, after its president Pierre Nkurunziza pursued and won a third term in office that his opponents say is unconstitutional. The head of the U.N. mission in Congo warned last week that the political impasse posed an "extreme risk" to stability. Millions died in regional conflicts between 1996 and 2003 and Congo has never had a peaceful transition of power. (Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)