FILE PHOTO: Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila speaks during a Reuters interview at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa
By Stanis Bujakera
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's outgoing President Joseph Kabila said he would hand over power on Thursday "without regret" and called on Congolese to support his successor, Felix Tshisekedi.
Kabila has governed the vast central African country since succeeding his assassinated father in 2001 at the age of 29, in the midst of a regional war that led to millions of deaths.
His refusal to quit power when his final term officially expired in 2016 led to deadly protests, but he finally agreed last year to step down following an election meant to lead to Congo's first democratic transfer of power in 59 years of independence.
The Dec. 30 poll produced an unexpected winner in opposition leader Tshisekedi. Its credibility has been heavily questioned with the runner-up saying he actually won a landslide victory and accusing Kabila and Tshisekedi of a stich-up.
Kabila's and Tshisekedi's camps deny there was a deal or that results were rigged.
"Respectful of the constitution, I am going to hand over power tomorrow, without regret," said Kabila, wearing a black suit and tie and sporting his trademark salt-and-pepper beard, in pre-recorded remarks broadcast on national television.
"I invite you to massively support (Tshisekedi) as you have supported me," he said.
He credited himself with accomplishments including reunifying the country and curtailing inflation.
Still, his successor will assume power in one of the world's least developed countries, despite its copious output of copper, cobalt and other lucrative minerals.
Tshisekedi, son of the late opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, is due to take power on Thursday in a ceremony at the presidential palace around mid-day. Many Congolese question whether he will be able to act independently, both because of question marks about a possible deal and the substantial influence Kabila's ruling coalition is set to retain.
In legislative elections held alongside the presidential vote, Kabila's coalition won about 70 percent of national assembly seats, meaning the prime minister will come from its ranks.
The federal bureaucracy and security services remain stacked with Kabila appointees, and he has refused to rule out running for president again in 2023 when he will no longer be constrained by term limits.
In his remarks, Kabila called for "a coalition for a strong and prosperous Congo" and one that would defend the country against "predatory forces" after its mineral riches.
Despite doubts about the election's credibility, Tshisekedi has won growing international acceptance in recent days by Western and African countries who fear that a protracted dispute could further destabilize Congo.
On Wednesday, the United States voiced support for Tshisekedi, a sharp reversal from one of the countries most critical of the election, deploring a lack of transparency and even threatening sanctions.
"The United States welcomes the Congolese Constitutional Court’s certification of Felix Tshisekedi as the next President," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said.
"We are committed to working with the new DRC government ... We encourage the government to include a broad representation of Congo's political stakeholders and to address reports of electoral irregularities."
Neighbors Angola and Congo Republic also congratulated him.
Angolan President Joao Lourenco wished Tshisekedi "success in carrying out the noble and difficult task entrusted to him by the Congolese people". Angola is a longtime Kinshasa ally but relations were strained during a two-year delay in the election.
The statements came despite major flaws in the poll noted by domestic monitors, including outright vote tampering. Congo's Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 election observers, found that runner-up Martin Fayulu actually won in a landslide.
Congolese sources in contact with senior officials told Reuters that Fayulu, also an opposition leader, had won decisively, but top officials instructed the electoral commission to award the vote to Tshisekedi, seen as more open to compromise with Kabila and his allies.
The African Union, which last week expressed "serious doubts" about the credibility of the results, said on Tuesday it would work with Tshisekedi's government but declined to congratulate him, as did the European Union.
Several other African governments have congratulated Tshisekedi, including South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Egypt.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by David Alexander, Jeffrey Benkoe, Andrew Cawthorne and David Gregorio)