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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo's government Sunday postponed the release of the results of last weekend's presidential election, fueling suspicions President Joseph Kabila's ruling party is maneuvering to cling to power.

No new date for announcing the winner of the Dec. 30 election was given. Electoral officials have compiled 53 percent of the votes and will not release any information until all the ballots have been tallied, said Corneille Nangaa, head of the electoral commission.

"We handle sensitive data and have to handle it responsibly," he said. He asked Congo's people to "remain patient."

"We are aware this process has always been surrounded by distrust," he said, referring to calls from the Catholic Church, the African Union, the U.S. and other diplomats for the government to announce accurate results.

Kabila, who is stepping down after 18 years in power, had delayed the election for two years. The postponement in announcing the winner was seen by some Congolese as part of an effort by Kabila's party to manipulate the results in order to claim victory.

The Catholic Church, an influential voice in this heavily Catholic nation, turned up the pressure by saying it already knows there is a clear victor, based on data compiled by the church's 40,000 election observers. Because Congo's regulations say only the electoral commission can announce election results, the church did not name the winner.

Congo's ruling party, which backs Kabila's preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, called the church's statement "irresponsible and anarchist."

The leading opposition candidate is Martin Fayulu, a businessman and lawmaker.

This could be Congo's first democratic, peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.

For the past week, the government cut off internet access across the vast Central African country to prevent any speculation on social media about who won. The government has also blocked transmissions from Radio France International, which was alleged to have speculated on the winner, and revoked the press credentials of RFI's correspondent.

Election observers and the opposition have raised concerns about voting irregularities, including the government's decision to bar 1 million voters in eastern Congo from casting ballots because of what it said was the Ebola outbreak in the region. Eastern Congo is known as a center of the opposition.

Western observers were not invited to watch the balloting, and the U.S. has threatened sanctions against those who undermine the democratic process.

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While Congo was largely calm during and after the voting, President Donald Trump said about 80 military personnel and combat equipment had been deployed to neighboring Gabon to protect American citizens and diplomatic facilities in Congo. Ahead of the vote, the U.S. ordered non-emergency government employees and family members to leave the country.

At stake is a vast country rich in the minerals that power the world's mobile phones and laptops, yet desperately underdeveloped. Some 40 million people were registered to vote.

Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father was assassinated, is constitutionally barred from serving three consecutive terms but has hinted he may run again in 2023. That has led many Congolese to suspect he will rule from the shadows if Shadary takes office.

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