* SADC has called for recount of disputed election result
* Congo's top court considering legal challenge
* Winner Tshisekedi and Kabila deny secret deal (Adds African Union meeting, Security Council statement)
By Giulia Paravicini and Stanis Bujakera
KINSHASA, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Lawyers for the runner-up in Democratic Republic of Congo's disputed election exhorted the nation's highest court on Tuesday to order a recount of a poll they say was rigged.
The Dec. 30 election was meant to lead to Congo's first democratic handover of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. But hope for a new era after 18 years of chaotic rule by President Joseph Kabila has faded amid bitter controversy.
The second-place finisher, former Exxon Mobil executive Martin Fayulu, says he won with more than 60 percent of votes based on his camp's tallies, and that the official winner, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, struck a deal with Kabila.
Tshisekedi and Kabila deny this.
Hearings opened in a packed room at the Constitutional Court, which has until Friday to pass judgment.
The nine-judge court is considered by the opposition to be friendly to Kabila, and Fayulu has said he is not confident.
"We ask for a recount of the votes from all candidates, polling station by polling station," one of his lawyers said in a series of impassioned speeches. Another said results should not have been given with votes still being counted.
Lawyers for Tshisekedi's Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party said not enough evidence was produced to justify a recount.
Congo's influential Catholic Church has said the results were inconsistent with those of its 40,000 observers. It has not said who it believes won, but three diplomats briefed on its findings said they indicated it was Fayulu.
Wary of the kind of regional fallout triggered by previous crises in Congo, African countries are to meet this week to discuss the election. Regional approval is critical for the legitimacy of the next president.
MEETINGS IN ETHIOPIA
The Southern African Development Community (SADC), which includes power-houses and Kinshasa allies South Africa and Angola, has called an emergency meeting on Thursday in Addis Ababa. The African Union has also called a meeting on the same day in the Ethiopian capital that will begin after the SADC one.
Kabila's diplomatic adviser, Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, told Reuters he would attend the SADC meeting alongside foreign minister Leonard She Okitundu.
SADC on Sunday called for a recount. South Africa and Zambia backtracked on Monday, although Zambia reiterated its call for a government of national unity.
Tshisekedi's UDPS party also plans to file a challenge on Tuesday to the results of the legislative election, which took place the same day as the presidential vote.
Although the presidential candidate of Kabila's ruling coalition, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, won only 24 percent of the vote, the coalition took more than 350 of 500 seats in the National Assembly, compared with about 30 for the UDPS.
That could undermine Tshisekedi's ability to live up to campaign promises to break with Kabila's long tenure, which began in 2001 when his father was assassinated.
France, Belgium, the United States and Britain have all expressed concern, but criticism from inside Africa could hold greater sway.
Isolated post-election violence in Congo has many fearing a return to the conflict and upheaval that killed millions since the 1990s.
In a cautious statement, the United Nations Security Council said it "welcomed the peaceful holding of the elections" and urged all sides to "preserve the generally peaceful climate".
Council members Russia, China and South Africa had previously all erred against criticism.
Congo is the world's leading miner of cobalt, used in electric car batteries and mobile phones, and Africa's biggest copper producer. It also mines gold and diamonds.
But unrest, disorganisation and corruption have left many in poverty and dissatisfied with Kabila's rule. (Additional reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro in Dakar, Writing by Aaron Ross and Edward McAllister, Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Angus MacSwan and Andrew Cawthorne)
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