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In Congo Imminent crisis as opposition leader returns home

Thousands of supporters sporting Tshisekedi T-shirts and waving party flags who had gathered at the airport flanked his motorcade as it crawled its way into the city.

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Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi (front) of the Democratic Republic of Congo in file photo. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg play Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi (front) of the Democratic Republic of Congo in file photo. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg

Congo's veteran opposition chief Etienne Tshisekedi returned home after a two-year absence to a warm welcome from large crowds Wednesday as the mineral-rich African nation heads into fresh turbulence.

Thousands of supporters sporting Tshisekedi T-shirts and waving party flags who had gathered at the airport flanked his motorcade as it crawled its way into the city of 11 million people.

Wearing his trademark cap and looking slightly frail, the 83-year-old was greeted by opposition figures and UN officials as he stepped off a plane from Belgium, where he was medevaced in 2014.

An immensely popular figure, Tshisekedi emerged as a leading opposition voice as far back as the 1980s when he became a critic of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

In Democratic Republic of Congo's last presidential election in 2011, he ran second to Joseph Kabila but contended he was denied victory by massive fraud.

Tshisekedi "has come to take charge of operations, to enable the change of government that the Congolese people have been waiting for for decades," Bruno Tshibala, secretary-general of Tshisekedi's UPDS party, said as the plane arrived.

Banners waved by opposition supporters read "Kabila, you're nothing but a tenant, the owner is back" and "Kabila, let it be clear that your mandate's over."

In power since his father's assassination in 2001, Kabila is suspected by opponents of eyeing a third term though the constitution allows only two.

Talk of the head of state hanging on beyond the expiry of his second term on December 20 has whipped up fresh tension in the country of 71 million people.

Protests erupted after the Constitutional Court ruled in May that Kabila could remain in office in a caretaker capacity beyond the end of the mandate.

The government meanwhile has called for a "national dialogue" and former Togo premier Edem Kodjo has been named by the African Union as the talks' "facilitator."

But Tshisekedi, who recently accomplished the rare feat of uniting the Congolese opposition, wants nothing to do with Kodjo.

In Belgium last month, DR Congo's opposition parties rallied behind Tshisekedi in a new alliance named "Rassemblement" (Rally) that aims to ensure Kabila quits.

"More than ever, we must be united to get rid of you know who," he said at the time.

But the opposition must be mindful of the possible dangers and get the president "to leave quietly... and not expose the people to bullets," he said.

It was the first time that almost all of Congo's fractured opposition had come together against Kabila.

And Wednesday, another prominent opposition figure, former Katanga governor Moise Katumbi who is currently abroad, said in a tweet "Happy to see Pdt #Tshisekedi back in #DRC!"

The wealthy businessman who owns a popular football club joined the opposition in September after retiring as governor and accused Kabila of seeking to violate the constitution and remain in office.

Katumbi left the country in May for medical treatment but was last month sentenced in absentia to three years in jail for property fraud.

ALSO READ: Opposition splits in Congo, threaten first peaceful power transfer

The presiding judge in the case has since claimed she was pressured by the authorities into signing off on a guilty verdict, to ensure Katumbi would be ineligible to run for office, according to a letter seen by AFP Wednesday.

Communications Minister Lambert Mende said the judge's letter would have no effect on Katumbi's sentence.

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