Congo was in limbo Tuesday as officials announced a 48-hour delay in the publication of results from last week's disputed presidential election.

The delay was all but inevitable following an election that was marred by massive technical glitches, including the late delivery of ballots, some of which didn't reach polling stations until three days after the vote was supposed to take place. Even though it was clear that the election commission was not prepared for last week's ballot, the government rushed ahead with the election because the current president's five-year term expires Tuesday at midnight.

kinshasa, congo

The 48-hour delay means President Joseph Kabila will be staying in office past his legal mandate, and analysts worry that the country could slide into a situation of unconstitutional power which could stoke tension in Congo.

"As we haven't yet been able to receive the tally sheets from all 60,000 polling stations in the country, we decided to push back the publication by 48 hours," said Matthieu Mpita, the spokesman of the National Independent Electoral Commission. "It was our objective to make the deadline, but we need all the elements."

On state television, the presenter interrupted the coverage of a soccer match to read a statement from the commission announcing the 48-hour delay which it said was for the sake of the transparency of the election.

Earlier, officials said helicopters had been sent to retrieve tally sheets from the distant corners of this enormous country where only two per cent of roads are paved. The helicopters might succeed in bringing back the votes from the bush, but even in the capital poll workers were still far from done.

Congo is staging only its second democratic election and the process has been flawed at every step, from the late printing and delivery of ballots, to the chaotic counting centres where trucks were dumping containers filled with ballots and frequent power cuts interrupted the entry of data.

More than three million people registered to vote in the capital, Kinshasa, and observers say that only two of the four vote tabulation centres there had finished compiling results by Tuesday afternoon. Even at those two hubs, poll workers had misplaced results from hundreds of polling stations, said observers.

Mountains of rice sacks

They were sorting through mountains of rice sacks containing ballots desperately trying to find them, said David Pottie of the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based observation mission established by former U.S. president resident Jimmy Carter.\

Near the headquarters of the main opposition party, police fired tear gas and blasted water cannons to disperse supporters of Congo's opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, witnesses said.

With more than two-thirds of the vote counted, Tshisekedi, 78, was trailing with 36 per cent of the 12.6 million votes tabulated. Kabila, the  former rebel commander whose elite guard is already accused of gunning down at least 14 opposition supporters, had a nearly-insurmountable lead of 46 per cent.

Election violence has already left at least 18 dead and more than 100 wounded, with most of the deaths caused by troops loyal to Kabila, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Congo's back-to-back civil wars in the 1990s consumed the region, and destroyed the nation whose population is now nudging 70 million. The country is ranked last on the United Nations' global survey of human development.