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Opposition leader's body returning to Congo for funeral

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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — The body of longtime Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi was returned to home soil Thursday night for burial more than two years after his death, after a political standoff ended.

The arrival from Belgium fulfilled one of the first promises his son Felix made after unexpectedly coming to power as Congo’s president earlier this year. A somber Felix Tshisekedi gently touched the casket, draped in the national flag, upon its arrival in the capital, Kinshasa, as thousands gathered.

Etienne Tshisekedi, 84, was the face of Congo’s opposition for decades until his death in February 2017 in Brussels. Supporters say he was so potent a threat to former president Joseph Kabila that even his corpse had to remain abroad.

The arrival of Tshisekedi’s remains underscores just how dramatically the political landscape in Congo has shifted. While he once claimed the presidency after a disputed election he never held the office, but the commemoration of his life will have all the markings of a service for a statesman. Tens of thousands will pay tribute at a stadium on Friday and presidents from six other African nations are expected to attend the memorial service on Saturday.

Tshisekedi, known for his fiery criticism of Kabila and his trademark flat cap, died from a pulmonary embolism in Brussels and didn’t live to see his political nemesis, Kabila, leave power.

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At the time of his death, tensions were at an all-time high as critics feared Kabila would not cede power in the mineral-rich nation while elections were repeatedly delayed.

Family members and Tshisekedi’s UDPS party were unable to reach an agreement with Kabila’s government for the repatriation of his body, as the regime feared a funeral could lead to a resurgence of opposition demonstrations calling for Kabila’s ouster.

“Even in death Tshisekedi makes Kabila afraid,” Jean-Marc Kabund said in 2017 when he was the UDPS party’s secretary-general.

Tshisekedi was one of UDPS’s founders in 1982 as opposition grew to then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Congo for decades. Two years after the country allowed multiple political parties in 1990, Tshisekedi became prime minister in an uneasy on-again, off-again partnership with Mobutu.

He went into exile in 2000 after repeated clashes with the government of Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent, who became president after Mobutu’s departure and was assassinated in 2001. At one point, Tshisekedi was banished to internal exile in his home village about 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of the capital but he made a triumphant return in 2003.

Tshisekedi’s international prominence grew in 2011 when he ran against Kabila for president. He later declared himself president after an election marred by allegations of vote-rigging by the ruling party. He was placed under de facto house arrest but later left for Belgium for medical treatment.

Tshisekedi kept up his criticism until the end, at one point accusing Kabila of treason for not stepping down at the end of his mandate in late 2016. A court ruled that Kabila could stay on until the next election was held, but Tshisekedi called it a “coup d’état that was carried out with the blessing of the constitutional court.”

Kabila’s government, under international pressure, eventually cleared the way for an election, though Felix Tshisekedi’s victory early this year was disputed. Another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, maintains he won. Critics suggested that Felix Tshisekedi had reached a backroom deal with Kabila as the most palatable candidate after Kabila’s chosen candidate fared poorly.

Those fears were exacerbated when Kabila’s party won a majority in legislative elections, earning the right to choose Congo’s prime minister. Concerns remain that Kabila aims to run for the presidency again in the next election.

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Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.

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