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By Michelle Nichols
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo must hold a long-delayed election to replace President Joseph Kabila by the end of next year or the vote will lose international support, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Friday.
Repeated delays to the poll, originally scheduled for late 2016, have led to unrest and raised fears the Central African nation could slip back to the wars of the turn of the century that killed millions.
U.S. envoy Nikki Haley, who met with the Congolese electoral commission (CENI) during a visit to Kinshasa, told reporters she had passed on a message that "these elections must take place in 2018 or there will be no support for the electoral process".
"The president must say that we're going to have elections in 2018," Haley said ahead of a later meeting with Kabila. "Every day we don't have elections in this country someone dies."
The electoral commission had said earlier this month that the vote to replace Kabila could not take place until April 2019 at the earliest, leading the opposition to warn that the population would "take matters into its own hands".
Dozens died in protests against Kabila's refusal to step down at the end of his constitutional mandate last December. The resulting political crisis has also contributed to rising militia violence in Congo's east and centre.
Kabila, who has ruled Congo since his father's assassination in 2001, says the election delays are due to challenges registering millions of voters.
However, his opponents accuse him of using the delay to manoeuvre to remove term limits that prevent him from standing for re-election, as presidents in neighbouring Rwanda and Congo Republic have done. He denies those charges.
Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said the government hoped to see the election as soon as possible but that it was up to the electoral commission to set the date.
"It's not up to the government, nor to Ms. Haley to organise the elections," Mende said. "I don't think that we can be subjected to these kinds of diktats."
International donors have said they are prepared to provide significant funding to elections but are waiting for a realistic calendar from CENI.
So far, they have contributed only 6 percent of the $123 million that the United Nations is expecting, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo said earlier this month.
(Additional reporting by Patient Ligodi; writing by Aaron Ross; editing by Peter Graff)