Coup attempt made in Congo

Monday, March 29, 2004

KINSHASA, Congo -- Government forces put down an apparent coup attempt Sunday after attacks on military installations and television headquarters in the Congolese capital by forces believed loyal to former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the British ambassador told the Associated Press.

The government refused to characterize the violence, but said the administration of President Joseph Kabila remained in power.

"We have the situation under control," government spokes-man Vital Kamerhe said. Interior Minister Theophile Mbemba said the attack would not destabilize the government.

Fighters loyal to Mobutu, Congo's late Cold War dictator, were among those who launched the attack, British ambassador Jim Atkinson told The Associated Press. Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, Joseph's father.

The assault represents the first major threat to the power-sharing government meant to reunify and stabilize Congo after a devastating five-year civil war in which an estimated 3 million people died, mainly through war-induced hunger and disease.

The attacks began before dawn and lasted through four hours of gunfire. Shooting eased by late morning, when the government apparently overcame the attacks.

Kabila was believed in the country Sunday but his exact whereabouts were not known.

"I have it on good authority that he's safe," Atkinson said.

Congolese officials said the simultaneous pre-dawn attacks targeted an army camp near Kabila's offices, a military airport, a naval shipyard on the Congo river and the national radio and television headquarters.

Congolese forces apprehended 12 assailants, government spokesman Vital Kamerhe said -- adding that untold numbers of the civilian-clothed attackers disappeared into the city with their weapons. He said the battle killed one soldier and wounded two others.

After the fighting, authorities seized six rocket-propelled grenades, two mortar tubes, 30 grenades, 75 AK-47 assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, the army said.

Congo officials said the government of national unity would continue its mission to move Congo beyond its ruinous 1998 to 2003 war, which saw foreign-backed rebels take control of the east and much of the north.

"This event will not destabilize the government. Everybody's still working together," Mbemba told reporters.

Thousands of soldiers loyal to Mobutu's government fled across the Congo River to Brazzaville, capital of neighboring Republic of Congo, after the ex-leader was ousted in 1997.

"They've infiltrated into Kinshasa with weapons, presumably over the past days and weeks," Atkinson, the British envoy said. "This morning they began attacking at various places."

A Congo army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some of the attackers had come from Brazzaville overnight, passing a security post where soldiers were asleep on duty.

Shooting was heavy near the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters of the U.N. mission in Congo.

President Kabila has been in power since January 2001, when bodyguards assassinated then-ruler Laurent Kabila, Joseph's father.

The United Nations has 10,800 peacekeepers in Congo, helping the transitional government regain control of its territory and prepare for elections to be held in less than two years.


Associated Press reporter Edward Harris in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.

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