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Tour de Congo cycling event begins in Matadi

image captionCycling has been a popular sport in DR Congo despite years of instability

The first cycling tour of the Democratic Republic of Congo has begun in the west of the country in Matadi, a port city on the Congo River.

Cyclists from France and across Africa are taking part in the nearly 900km (600-mile) Tour de Congo.

Competitors will ride nine stages over 12 days but will not travel to the volatile east of DR Congo, which is the size of Western Europe.

It was expected to start on Tuesday, but was delayed for 24 hours.

The BBC's Maud Jullien in Kinshasa says organisers postponed the race by a day as they wanted the tour to end in the capital city on 30 June, DR Congo's independence day.

According to the UN's Radio Okapi, Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo saw off about 60 cyclists.

There are 34 foreigners competing from eight African countries and France, the radio station reports.

One of the African teams is from Rwanda, which has had a fractious relationship with its neighbour since the 1994 genocide when many Hutu fighters fled to DR Congo.

Rwanda denies UN accusations that it backs rebel forces in DR Congo.

The other African teams come from Benin, Burkina Faso, neighbouring Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda.

President of the Congolese Cycling Federation, Sylvestre Mutayo, says cycling has always been an important sport in DR Congo

Historically it was the most popular sport after football, but because of economic difficulties it lost the "second place" in the last decade, he said.

The course - which goes to the more central city of Kikwit before heading west again to Kinshasa - will demonstrate to people that conflict does not affect the whole country, he said.

"The tour will show people that we have infrastructure, and that people are friendly and hospitable, open to tourism," he told the BBC.

Our reporter says the event has been largely financed by the government with help from private sponsors and will be filmed from the air by a media company using drones.

Despite DR Congo's size, transport infrastructure is very poor and it is estimated that of about 153,000km of roads, less than 3,000km are paved.

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