Kinshasa - Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi headed on Tuesday to Belgium for medical treatment - just as his party is trying to negotiate a power-sharing deal following President Laurent Kabila’s refusal to step down.
The 84-year-old head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a historic heavyweight in DRC’s opposition movement, took off from Kinshasa’s airport aboard a private plane at 06:00, an AFP journalist reported.
The departure of the frail leader could complicate negotiations over the timetable for a New Year’s Eve deal under which Kabila will stay in office before new elections are held in late 2017.
The country’s influential Catholic bishops brokered the deal in a bid to prevent more bloodshed in a crisis that has already claimed dozens of lives in the chronically unstable nation.
’He’s not dying’
The UDPS, saying it wanted to put an end to "rumours", published a statement overnight saying its leader would be leaving for Brussels on Tuesday on a trip that had been "postponed several times because of the political situation in the country", without specifying the reason for his departure.
But a source close to the Tshisekedi family said he was going to Belgium for medical tests. "He’s not dying, but he has to go for a test in Brussels," the source said.
A senior UDPS official expressed greater concern over the health of "the Old Man", as Tshisekedi is affectionately known among his political allies, saying the opposition leader’s health had rapidly deteriorated.
"This could be a one-way trip, we can’t rule that out," the party official said on condition of anonymity.
The UDPS statement said Tshisekedi would be returning to DRC as soon as possible to "take up his historic responsibilities".
Tshisekedi had made a triumphant return in July after two years of medical treatment in former colonial power Belgium, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to welcome him home.
Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, was due to step down on December 20 at the end of his second and final mandate, but has shown no signs of wanting to leave office.
Tshisekedi is supposed to head a transitional body that will be set up until the elections due at the end of the year, with a prime minister to be named from opposition ranks.
He had unsuccessfully fought the 2011 presidential election against Kabila, a vote which the opposition alleged was marked by massive fraud.