KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo's Catholic Church urged election authorities on Sunday to ensure published poll results were a true reflection of voters' intentions as a disorderly counting process raised concerns about possible electoral fraud and more bloodshed.
The Church, which had the largest network of independent observers during Monday's elections and is an influential player in the overwhelmingly Christian country, warned that a dispute over the election could trigger major unrest.
At least 18 people were killed in election-related violence, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which on Sunday welcomed a government probe into the alleged killing of civilians by President Joseph Kabila's security forces.
Separately, the African Union urged politicians in the Central African state to show restraint after leading opposition parties rejected partial election results that showed Kabila in the lead so far.
"We have called for the results from the ballot boxes to be respected. That means we must publish the results of what people voted and not something else," Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, told Reuters after Sunday mass.
Monsengwo said the Church would have an accurate picture of the results based on a network of 30,000 observers monitoring some 24 percent of the country's 63,000 polling stations.
When asked if the Church would publish their version of the results if the election commission published different figures, he said: "I hope that will not be the case."
With fears growing that the release of full preliminary results in two days' time will lead to unrest, both the African Union and local church leaders said candidates should make any challenges to results through legal channels.
Results from just over half of polling stations give Kabila a clear lead over his main rival, veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who has strong support in the capital Kinshasa where outbreaks of violence occurred before the poll.
Congo's election commission defied all odds to hold the presidential and parliamentary poll last Monday. But the voting was often chaotic, at times violent and had to be stretched over three days due to delays in places.
International observers have warned that the various steps of the counting process after the initial tally at polling stations have been poorly organized, with ballots and results sheets often being lost or destroyed in the process.
The partial tally released by the commission so far shows Kabila leading with 4,942,050 votes, while Tshisekedi trails with 3,402,650 votes, based on about 53 percent of polling stations counted. Both camps say they are confident of winning.
The count includes few results from Kinshasa and the percentage varied widely by province. Geographical trends will likely have a strong influence on the overall figure as voting is often on ethnic lines in much of the country.
The opposition says the preliminary results are skewed and were released early to prepare the country for a fraudulent final outcome. It has called for African mediation.
The election commission says it was obliged to publish early figures because hackers put bogus results on its website showing Tshisekedi in the lead.
Kabila's camp has said the president would accept defeat. But it accused the opposition of readying people for protests and said he will not tolerate any threats to his authority on the streets in the event of him winning.
Earlier Bishop Nicolas Djomo, president of the Congolese bishops' conference CENCO, appealed for calm and warned that the country could see protracted civilian unrest similar to 1991 when locals in Kinshasa joined riots led by unpaid soldiers.
"We feel today as if there is a high-speed train heading straight for a wall, and no one wants to put on the brakes," he said, urging political leaders to act responsibly.
CENCO also called on election authorities to publish more information, including the number of spoiled ballots.
AU CHIMES IN
The November 28 poll was the first locally organized and funded election since the official end of years of war in 2003. Kabila won a United Nations-backed vote in 2006, offering hope that the mineral-rich, crisis-riddled giant may stabilize.
But the vote has put the nation on edge.
Congo's government has beefed up security in anticipation of the announcement of the results. Overnight, U.N. peacekeepers, Congolese riot police and heavily armed presidential guard soldiers patrolled the streets of Kinshasa.
"(AU Commission President Jean) Ping strongly calls on the entire political class to show restraint and responsibility so that the announcement of the ... results represent a moment of political maturity and reinforce democracy," the AU said in a statement.
While appealing for high-level African mediation, Congo's opposition leaders, who have only united after the poll, rejected the idea of a unity government with Kabila, such as those put in place to calm post-election disputes of recent years in countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)