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Top DRC opposition figure seeks asylum from South Africa in Burundi

MYT 5:25:00 AM

KINSHASA (Reuters) - A top opposition figure in the Democratic Republic of Congo wanted by the government on treason charges is seeking asylum in the South African embassy in neighbouring Burundi, a spokesman for the Congolese government said on Saturday.

The government accuses Roger Lumbala, a Congolese MP and former rebel, of helping Rwanda support a rebellion in eastern Congo that has deepened political divisions in the capital Kinshasa, where the government and the opposition accuse each other of fanning the flames of the distant war.

The worsening political chaos threatens to undermine President Joseph Kabila's ability to push through reforms in the country - a potential mining and oil giant - after his re-election in flawed polls last year.

Lambert Mende, a spokesman for the Congolese government, said Lumbala had been trying to win asylum at the South African embassy in Bujumbura, the Burundian capital, and had evaded arrest by Burundian security forces whom Kinshasa had asked to detain him.

"We're convinced he is in a group who are helping the Rwandans in North Kivu," Mende said, referring to the province where the M23 rebels operate.

Negotiations were underway to try to get Lumbala transferred to Kinshasa, Mende said, but there had been no response yet from South Africa. At least two other unnamed opposition figures were also being investigated for rebel links, he added.

Officials from South Africa and Burundi were not immediately available to comment.

The opposition has also accused President Joseph Kabila of The same alleged crime as Lumbala - of helping Rwanda back the rebellion in the east.

"It's practically impossible that (Kabila) will be indicted (for treason), but it could still cause him problems if he has to defend himself from these allegations," said Philippe Biyoya, a professor of politics at Kinshasa University.

REBELLION

Fighting in Congo's eastern hills erupted earlier this year after a mutinous general organised a rebel force and began attacking government-held territory, the latest conflict after nearly two decades of Rwandan-backed uprisings.

A U.N. report - strongly denied by Rwanda - has again linked Kigali to the M23 anti-Kinshasa armed group, whose six month-old rebellion has forced 220,000 people to flee their homes near the Rwandan border.

Congo's neighbours are studying a potential intervention force to help crush the rebels. But in Kinshasa, Kabila's government has set its sights on the opposition.

Relations between Congo and Rwanda had thawed in the wake of a 2009 peace deal which saw rebels integrated into the Congolese army and joint efforts to tackle the FDLR Rwandan militia.

Rwanda's announcement last week that it was withdrawing more than 300 soldiers from eastern Congo who had been staging covert operations with Congolese troops against the FDLR prompted Congo's two biggest opposition movements to accuse Kabila of complicity in treason.

A statement released by the party of leading opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi on Thursday said Kabila was guilty of "high treason" for allowing Rwandan troops onto Congolese soil. It also called on the population to rise up against the government.

On Monday, leading eastern politician Vital Kamerhe - a longtime opponent of joint military operations with Rwanda - signed a declaration calling for Kabila to be prosecuted for his role in the operations.

In Congo's largely opposition-supporting capital the declarations are feeding deep-seated anti-Rwandan sentiment, a prominent feature of last year's election, which international observers said appeared fraudulent.

Local newspaper Le Potentiel runs regular cartoons depicting Rwandan President Paul Kagame as a grotesque pantomime villain bent on stealing Congo's resources.

"Rwanda knows our leaders, they're together, it's Rwanda who rules us," a 47-year-old Kinshasa resident who gave his name as only Indu told Reuters.

In return, Rwandan bloggers have taken to the Internet to accuse the Congolese authorities of stirring up ethnic hatred in a region still recovering from the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred.

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Andrew Osborn)

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