Congolese president survives coup attempt while army chases ringleader out of town

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The Independent Online

Gunfire and explosions rocked the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa, yesterday morning, as renegade soldiers made a failed attempt to overthrow the transitional government led by President Joseph Kabila.

Gunfire and explosions rocked the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa, yesterday morning, as renegade soldiers made a failed attempt to overthrow the transitional government led by President Joseph Kabila.

Dissident troops from Mr Kabila's presidential guard sparked fighting around the presidential mansion, the state radio station and the main military camp in the early morning hours. Government forces quelled the attempted coup within hours and, by yesterday afternoon, were reportedly chasing the ringleader, Major Eric Lenge, south of the city using soldiers and a helicopter.

President Kabila made a televised address to reassure the nation that he remained in control. "Stay calm, prepare yourself to resist - because I will allow nobody to try a coup d'état or to throw off course our peace process," said the 32-year-old president, dressed in military uniform. "As for me, I'm fine," he added, apparently in reference to speculation that he had been caught up in the gunfire.

The attempted putsch was the second major blow in as many weeks to the authority of the Kabila-led transitional government, which was formed last June to end the DRC's devastating five-year war. Eleven days ago a separate group of renegades seized of Bukavu, more than 1,000 miles to the east, and occupied it for a week. The dissident leader, Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda, withdrew his forces voluntarily last Monday.

Yesterday's attempted coup in Kinshasa suggested the atmosphere of upheaval was spreading across the vast country, Africa's third-largest. There was no indication, however, of any link with the group that seized Bukavu.

The attempted coup started after midnight on Thursday when the dissidents seized control of the national radio station and apparently cut the capital's electricity supply. At about 2.30am Major Lenge appeared on state radio to declare that has forces has "neutralised" the transitional government, and urged the army to join him.

But the speech, which was broadcast when most Congolese were sleeping, went largely unheard and within three hours, government loyalists had forced the rebels into Camp Tshatshi, the city's main military base, close to the Congo River.

At dawn, residents reported heavy gunfire and tank shelling from within the camp; later, the army announced that it had arrested 12 rebels. Gunfire was also reported from around President Kabila's residence, which was unexplained.

United Nations military officials estimated that about 200 soldiers took part in the coup. Antoine Ghonda, the Foreign Minister, admitted that its leaders came from the presidential guard. Diplomats said the renegades may have been angry at the government's failure to pay full wages for several months.

The involvement of the presidential guard yesterday's disturbances has ominous personal resonances for Mr Kabila: three years ago his father, Laurent, was assassinated by a presidential guard soldier in still-murky circumstances.

In March, several hundred soldiers attacked military installations around the city, although it was unclear whether they were attempting a coup or a localised army mutiny. President Kabila blamed the incident on supporters of the former dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko; it remained unclear last night who he blamed for yesterday's botched uprising.

The upheavals in Bukavu and Kinshasa inflicted serious damage on the DRC's fragile peace process, which had been pointed towards elections next year. The brief occupation of Bukavu sparked anti-UN protests across the country; eroded confidence in Mr Kabila; and raised fears of a fresh war, possibly with neighbouring Rwanda.

It also resulted in serious human rights abuses, some of them war crimes, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. Ethnically fuelled murders, rape of girls as young as three and widespread looting accompanied the fighting, said the New York-based lobby group. As many as 80 people were killed.

HRW was "deeply concerned" by the failure of 800-strong UN mission in Bukavu to use its Chapter Seven mandate - which allows for deadly force - to protect civilians in danger, although it commended the peacekeepers for saving some lives.

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