By Peter Jones
KINSHASA (Reuters) - The top U.S. envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region called on Thursday for Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila to respect a constitutional term limit and step aside when the country organizes polls in 2016.
Several African leaders have sought to extend their rule by amending their constitutions, and speculation is growing that Kabila may seek a third term despite a two-term limit stipulated in Article 220 of Congo's national charter.
The president, who came to power after the 2003 murder of his father President Laurent Kabila and won his first elected term in a 2006 election, has not revealed his intentions. Government officials deny he plans to alter the constitution.
"Our strong advice is that there is a global election calendar with the presidential elections no later than the end of 2016, and (that there should be) no attempt to disregard the unamendable stipulation of article 220," U.S. special envoy Russ Feingold told a news conference in the capital Kinshasa.
His comments echoed those of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to Congo last month and came at the end of a regional tour with special envoys from the European Union, African Union and the United Nations.
Last month Congo's elections commission published details of local, municipal and urban elections which are due to take place in the second half of 2015, but a program for a presidential vote is still pending.
"The local elections are expensive but are not required by the constitution," said Feingold. "Organizing and financing these, but not the (presidential) elections, which are required by the constitution, is not a believable approach."
Feingold said holding elections was crucial for the continued development of Congo, a vast and disordered Central African nation where millions have been killed in various internal wars since the late 1990s, but has seen strong growth in recent years, particularly in its mining sector.
Kabila's win in the 2011 presidential election came under heavy criticism following reports of ballot-stuffing and violent intimidation of political opponents.
During his visit last month, Kerry pledged $30 million in U.S. aid to support elections as well as to finance recovery and reconstruction programs in Congo's conflict-ridden east. But a U.S. official said Washington reserved the right to withhold funds if the elections process was not transparent and credible.
(Reporting by Peter Jones; Editing by Joe Bavier and Mark Heinrich)