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Congolese Leader Safe After Failed Coup Bid

Twenty-one people are in custody and 12 are on the run after renegade presidential guards briefly seize the state radio station.

June 12, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, appeared on television Friday to declare that he was safe and that renegade members of his presidential guard had been vanquished in a coup attempt, the second against his transitional government this year.

The leader of Friday's coup attempt, Maj. Eric Lenge, and about a dozen supporters fled south from the capital, Kinshasa, pursued by government forces, Congolese officials said.

The coup attempt was the third major crisis in Congo this year. This month, rebel officers seized the eastern town of Bukavu before retreating. The other uprising took place in March, when soldiers attacked military installations in Kinshasa.

Friday's uprising began about 2 a.m. when rebels took over the state radio station and announced that Kabila's government had been "neutralized." Later, Kinshasa's power was shut down, plunging the capital into a state of fear and uncertainty. Explosions and heavy arms fire echoed through the city early Friday, even after the government announced that the coup attempt had collapsed.

The president's spokesman, Kudura Kasongo, speaking late Friday by mobile phone from Kinshasa, described the city as quiet and stable. He said 21 coup plotters had been captured and 12 were on the run, not far south of Kinshasa, with government forces in pursuit.

"The situation is under control," he said. "Now the situation is very quiet in the town and around the town."

He said that the coup attempt would have no effect on the transitional government and that Kabila would lead the country to elections next year.

In his television address, Kabila, 32, who was wearing a military uniform, urged his nation to remain calm. "I will allow nobody to try a coup d'etat or to throw the peace process off course," he said. "As for me, I'm fine."

Lenge had been a trusted figure close to Kabila.

Congo, which is about a quarter of the size of the United States and has about 53 million people, is rich in resources but is emerging from one of Africa's most debilitating wars. The civil war and related famine claimed about 3 million lives in five years.

The country's wealth of resources has often been its curse. In the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium seized Congo as a colony, plundering its rubber. More recently, warring forces have struggled for control over the country's minerals, including gold, diamonds and zinc.

In 2002, Kabila and several armed rebel groups signed a peace accord aimed at ending the civil war. Democratic elections are planned for next year.

But the seizure of Bukavu and Friday's coup attempt underscored the fragility of the transitional government and the peace process, and indicated the readiness of disaffected military officers to vent their rage in violence or seek power by force.

The coup attempt by members of the presidential guard carried echoes of the assassination of Kabila's father, President Laurent Kabila, who was killed by a member of his presidential guard in 2001. His son took over as president soon after, breathed life into the peace process and pledged to move the Democratic Republic of Congo to a multiparty democracy.

A spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo, Hamadoun Toure, said in a phone interview that it was too early to determine what effect the coup attempt might have on the transitional government and the peace process. Those judgments, he said, could be made only after Lenge is captured and the situation is under full control.

The streets of Kinshasa were empty Friday and the capital appeared to be returning to normal, Toure said.

U.N. workers, evacuated earlier in the week because of the Bukavu crisis, were scheduled to return today. Toure said their return had been postponed until the situation was clearer.

"We hope it will settle down and that the fighting will not resume," he said.

The failure to promptly capture Lenge stemmed from the reluctance of authorities to open fire when the renegades were in the city, Kasongo said.

Authorities "were struggling towards the goal of leading him out of town and getting him under control," he said, speaking in English. "They were very concerned not to shoot him in the town. They did not want to see people afraid."

Some analysts linked the coup attempt with widespread anger over the seizure of Bukavu.

Mushi Ferdinand, a political scientist at the Catholic Faculties of Kinshasa, said in a phone interview that there had been rumors of a possible coup in the last week, because of popular anger over the crisis in Bukavu and a sense that it had left a power vacuum.

Many Congolese feel that the president should have acted more decisively to prevent the seizure of the city, he said. Many also have become disillusioned with the transitional government, which is seen as unrepresentative, he said. But there is also no support for any party willing to disrupt the path to democracy and peace, he added.

"I don't think there will be any major change. What people want is elections, and anything that could upset the deadline will not be tolerated by the population," he said, referring to the timeline for elections by next year.

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