By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese President Joseph Kabila will step down after elections to be held by the end of 2017 under a last-minute deal struck by political parties on Friday, the lead mediator of the talks said.
Negotiators spent weeks in tense talks seeking to ensure Democratic Republic of Congo’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. But it remains unclear if elections can be organized by the end of next year, or if leading politicians, including Kabila, will keep to the terms.
"The government is asked to take all steps so that the elections are organized by the end of 2017 at the latest," said Marcel Utembi, president of Congo's Catholic Bishops' Conference, which has mediated the talks.
Under the deal, which is expected to be formally signed on Saturday, Kabila will be unable to change the constitution to allow him to stay in power for a third term.
Kabila's mandate ran out on Dec. 19, but authorities have effectively extended it until 2018 because the government said it could not arrange elections before then.
The parties agreed that Kabila will appoint a prime minister from the country's main opposition bloc to oversee the transition, a major sticking point in the final stages of the talks.
Neither Kabila nor the country's leading opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, are expected to sign the deal, raising concerns about whether it will be respected.
Spokesmen for the government and Kabila's ruling coalition were not available for immediate comment.
Election experts also question the feasibility of organizing presidential, legislative and provincial assembly elections together by the end of 2017.
"If the accord calls for organizing the three elections together, it (shows) a common will to not organize good elections, or at least to not organize them within the planned time frame," Sylvain Lumu, a lawyer and election expert, told Reuters shortly before Utembi's announcement.
Kabila's extension of his rule has sparked bloody confrontations. Security forces killed around 40 people last week protesting over the tenure of a leader who came to power in 2001 following his father Laurent's assassination.
Western and African powers feared the current impasse could lead to a repeat of conflicts seen between 1996 and 2003 in eastern Congo in which millions died, mostly from starvation and disease.
A successful deal, however, is seen offering a boost to pro-democracy activists in other African countries and help buck a trend in which presidents have changed constitutions to stand for third terms.
(Editing by Edward McAllister and Jason Neely)