DR Congo awaits repatriation of former opposition leader's body

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Kinshasa (AFP)

Democratic Republic of Congo awaited Thursday the delayed return of the remains of former opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, an emotion-laden moment for the country after his son Felix became president this year.

A revered opponent of authoritarianism in DRC, Tshiskedi died in Belgium in February 2017 at the age of 84 and was unable to witness his son's victory in bitterly contested presidential election.

Felix Tshisekedi has vowed to repatriate his father's remains and bury them in his home country -- a goal that faced multiple obstacles under his predecessor Joseph Kabila.

After a last-minute delay to a scheduled Wednesday departure, the aircraft carrying the body left Belgium on Thursday at 1025 GMT, DR Congo presidential communications director Lydie Omanga said on Twitter.

The aircraft was scheduled to arrive at N'djili international airport in Kinshasa on Thursday around 1600-1700 GMT, Didier Mpambia, a funeral committee organiser, told AFP.

The funeral is scheduled for Saturday.

- Mourners stranded -

Late Wednesday, an official in Brussels said the late-night departure had been "cancelled for today due to issues over the organisation of the flight".

The overnight flight "had to be cancelled at the last minute because of logistical reasons", the Congolese government said in a statement.

It said the situation was "beyond the control" of the Belgian authorities and the funeral organisers.

Two hundred and fifty people planning to accompany the body were left stranded at the Melsbroek military airport near Brussels.

Belgium had planned a military ceremony for the departure of the funeral party at the airport in the presence of Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders.

Details about the reason for the postponement were sketchy.

The Belgian news agency Belga said the organisers' initial plan was to rent an Airbus A330, with the capacity to take 270 passengers as well as the coffin. The passengers included veteran members of the Tshisekedis' party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS).

- Thorn in dictator's side -

The programme of mourning includes a display of the body, mass and rally on Friday at an 80,000-seat stadium in Kinshasa, followed by a funeral on Saturday in Nsele, on the eastern outskirts of the capital.

Etienne Tshisekedi spent decades in politics but never reached the top job.

He served as interior minister in the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, before joining the opposition, where he was a persistent thorn in the dictator's side.

He co-founded the UDPS in 1982 after a stint in prison and in the 1990s was appointed prime minister several times, each time falling out with Mobutu after a matter of months or even days.

In 1997, Mobutu was ousted in a rebellion led by Joseph Kabila's father Laurent. Tshisekedi quickly became an opponent of the new regime -- a stance that continued after Laurent Kabila's assassination in 2001 and the rise of his son Joseph.

Tshisekedi refused to recognise Kabila's legitimacy to the very last. He boycotted the country's elections in 2006 on the grounds of fraud, and was beaten in the 2011 ballot, which was tainted by massive irregularities.

Almost two years after his death, on January 24, Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in as president after elections that saw Kabila step down after 18 years in power.

It was the first peaceful transition of power since the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

The handover however was marred by allegations of election rigging and by Kabila's continued domination of politics after amassing extensive clout during his years in office.