Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, awoke to gunfire yesterday when forces loyal to Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator, launched a coup attempt against the government of President Joseph Kabila.
Government forces took on the attackers at military installations and television headquarters across the capital, and arrested 15 men. Many of the attackers were dressed in civilian clothes and sporadic gunfire continued into the night, diplomatic sources said.
Theophile Mbemba Fundu, the Interior Minister, said: "It was an attack by armed military personnel seeking to undermine the internal security of the Congolese state".
It was the first major threat to a year-old power-sharing government which is trying to unify Africa's third-largest nation after a five-year-old war that is conservatively estimated to have killed some three million people. Fighters loyal to the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) recent dictator were among those behind the attempt, said Jim Atkinson, the British ambassador to Kinshasa.
The coup attempt began in the morning and lasted for four hours; by noon, it was apparently contained by loyalist troops. Mr Kabila was believed to be out of the city yesterday, but his whereabouts were still unclear. Mr Atkinson insisted: "I have it on good authority that he's safe."
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. Vital Kamerhe, the government spokesman, said that untold numbers of the civilian-clothed attackers disappeared into the city with their weapons. He said the battle killed one Congo soldier and injured two others.
Mr Kamerhe refused to comment on the diplomats' accounts of the attack, which they said was linked to the recent discovery of an arms cache buried in Kinshasa. "We have the situation under control," Mr Kamerhe said after the fighting subsided.
Congo officials said the attempt did not harm a government of national unity aiming to move Congo beyond its ruinous 1998-2003 war, which saw foreign-backed rebels take control of the east and much of the north. Mr Mbemba Fundu said: "This event will not destabilise the government. Everybody's still working together."
Diplomats believed the attempt was the work of soldiers loyal to Mobutu, Congo's three-decade ruler. Thousands of Mobutu soldiers fled across the river Congo to Brazzaville, the capital of the neighbouring Republic of Congo, after the ousting in 1997 of Mr Mobutu, who died of prostate cancer in September 1997, while in exile in Morocco.
Mr Atkinson said: "They've infiltrated into Kinshasa with weapons, presumably over the past days and weeks. This morning they began attacking at various places."
Shooting was heard around Kinshasa's Congo river port, directly across from Brazzaville. 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.
Mr Kabila has been in power since January 2001, when bodyguards assassinated then-ruler Laurent Kabila, Joseph's father. The United Nations has some 10,800 peacekeepers in the DRC, helping the transitional government regain control of its territory and prepare for elections in less than two years.