Congo security forces start early voting in presidential poll

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Security forces in the Republic of Congo cast their ballots Wednesday ahead of presidential elections in which veteran leader Denis Sassou Nguesso is frontrunner.

A polling station opened in the southern city of Dolisie, AFP journalists saw, where 1,203 soldiers, police and gendarmes were scheduled to vote -- a civic duty in this country.

Also called Congo-Brazzaville, the republic is an oil-rich but also poverty-stricken neighbour of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sassou Nguesso, bidding for a fourth term, is a 77-year-old retired general who first ruled from 1979 to 1992 before returning at the end of a civil war in 1997.

Henri Bouka, president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), said there were between 55,000 and 60,000 votes cast across the country.

"This early voting by the security forces is a test that we are trying out. Other African countries do it already," Bouka told AFP.

Opposition groups have criticised the move to separate voting by the security forces from the general public, seeing in it a further risk of ballot fraud.

Congo's influential Catholic Church, which has expressed "serious reservations" about how transparent and credible the vote will be, asked that its electoral observers receive accreditation.

But the authority in charge of accreditation said it was "not possible ... to give a positive response" to the request.

In 2015, the country staged a referendum on removing a 70-year age limit and a ban on presidents serving more than two terms.

The move paved the way for Sassou Nguesso to secure a third term in elections in March 2016 that were marred by bloodshed.

His rivals, former general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and former minister Andre Okombi Salissa, disputed the results.

They were arrested, put on trial and each handed 20 years in jail on charges of undermining state security.

Sassou Nguesso faces seven challengers on Sunday, most notably Mathias Dzon, a 73-year-old former finance minister who was the runner-up in 2016.

The largest opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), has already said it will boycott the vote.

Another major figure, Frederic Bintsamou, a former rebel chief who took up arms against Sassou Nguesso after the 2016 vote, has called for a peaceful ballot.

Bintsamou, also called Pastor Ntumi, told journalists that his party, the National Council of Republicans (CNR), would not field or support any candidate.

The elections "must not be the occasion for stirring the old demons of division," Bintsamou told journalists on Saturday.

Just over 2.5 million people are registered to vote in an estimated population of five million.

- 'Masquerade' -

One of Congo's most respected writers, Emmanuel Dongala, who lives in the United States, has criticised the fairness and transparency of the vote.

"It won't be an election but a masquerade," said Dongala, a chemist by training whose novels include "Johnny Mad Dog," about boys inducted into the Liberian civil war.

"Everyone already knows the name of the victor: Denis Sassou Nguesso," he told AFP.

"I bet he will give himself victory in the first round, with a score of between 60 and 70 percent."

Mambou Aimee Ngali, a playwright who was minister for culture between 1997 and 2002 before joining the opposition, said, "I'm expecting nothing from the March 21 elections."

"I think he (Sassou Nguesso) is tired -- he should go into retirement," she told AFP.