Reuters International

By Aaron Ross

KINSHASA (Reuters) - An opposition presidential candidate in Democratic Republic of Congo, accused of hiring mercenaries in an alleged plot against the state, left the country on Friday night to receive medical treatment in South Africa, his lawyer said.

The prosecutor general's office issued an arrest warrant on Thursday for former provincial governor Moise Katumbi but said in a statement on Friday that he could go to South Africa to be treated.

Katumbi's lawyer, Georges Kapiamba, told Reuters that his client had been hospitalised since last Friday, when police fired tear gas at him and his supporters outside the prosecutor's office in Congo's second city of Lubumbashi, where he was appearing to be questioned.

Katumbi denies the charges against him, which he says are aimed at derailing his bid to replace President Joseph Kabila in a November presidential election.

Kabila, in power since 2001, is barred by constitutional term limits from standing again but opponents accuse him of trying to delay the vote in order to cling to power.

The government says it is unlikely to be able to hold the election on time due to budgetary and logistical constraints, and denies that the charges against Katumbi are politically motivated.

Some of Katumbi's supporters fear that authorities will block the multi-millionaire former mining mogul from returning to the country, but Kapiamba rejected that possibility.

"They can't force him into exile," Kapiamba said, adding that Katumbi was headed to Johannesburg. "He is going to return."

Political tensions are running high in Congo ahead of the scheduled election. The country's highest court ruled last week that Kabila could stay in power if it did not take place before the end of his mandate.

Opposition parties labelled that a "constitutional coup d'etat" and called for marches across the country on May 26 to demand that Kabila step down this year.

On Friday, a court also sentenced three activists, arrested hours before a general strike in February to demand that Kabila leave power when his mandate expires this year, to one year in prison, the United Nations said.

The director of the U.N. human rights office in Congo, Jose Maria Aranaz, denounced the decision as evidence of "the instrumentalisation of the judiciary and the continued criminalisation of civil society."

(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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