By Benoit Nyemba
KANANGA, Congo (Reuters) - The head of Congo's election commission said on Thursday that better security in the conflict-ravaged Kasai region had enabled preparations for a delayed election to replace President Joseph Kabila, but it still may not happen before a year-end deadline.
Kasai poses Congo's biggest security challenge and is the scene of a growing humanitarian disaster in a country where militia violence since Kabila refused to step down in December has raised fears of a slip back into civil war.
But the central region appears to be settling down a little, with fewer reports of unrest, especially in the main towns.
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"We've seen that security has returned," election commission head Corneille Nangaa said in an interview in the capital of Kasai-Central province, Kananga, a town of dirt roads and iron-roofed buildings surrounded by thick bush and palm trees.
"The question of enrolling voters is nearly behind us," he said while on the tour of the region, where, however, a Reuters reporter saw many enrolment centers that had been burned to ashes because of the conflict.
Earlier this month, Nangaa said that the vote would probably not be possible this year due to delays registering voters, particularly in Kasai.
The insurrection there by the Kamuina Nsapu militia, which demands the withdrawal of Congolese forces from the area, has driven 1.4 million people from their homes and killed more than 3,000 since August last year.
Despite the security improvements, Nangaa said he could not guarantee the vote would take place this year, as required by a deal with Congo's opposition that allowed Kabila to stay in power beyond the expiry of his mandate last December.
With so many missed deadlines and an apparent lack of political will for the election to go ahead anytime soon, many Congolese doubt it will happen this year.
A Reuters journalist was able to accompany Nangaa on the nearly 200-km (125-mile) road trip from Mbuji-Mayi, in neighboring Kasai-Oriental province, to Kananga, a journey that may have been too dangerous some months ago.
Nangaa said that the commission had registered 37 million of an expected 42-45 million voters nationwide since last July but did not provide a date for when enrolment would begin in the parts of Kasai hit hardest by the violence, nor when the commission would announce the election date.
(Reporting By Benoit Nyemba; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Tim Cocks)