Belgium seeks to confront embarrassing chapter of its history

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Claims that the Belgian government orchestrated the 1961 murder of the Congo's independence leader went before a parliamentary committee yesterday, as Belgium sought to confront one of the most embarrassing chapters of its colonial past.

"For forty years the ghost of Patrice Lumumba has haunted relations between Belgium and its old Congolese colony", said the French daily paper Le Soir at the start of the investigation which is expected to take a year.

The inquiry was set up in the wake of claims, made by a Flemish sociologist, Ludo De Witte, who argued in a recently-published book, "The Murder of Lumumba", that Belgian government orchestrated the killing.

Amid the turmoil that followed independence Lumumba - who was the Congo's first premier - was abducted by rivals and taken by plane to the breakaway province of Katanga. He barely survived the flight and was killed several hours later on 17 January 17 1961.

Previous Belgian governments have failed to investigate such episodes of the country's colonial legacy but the new coalition, lead by the Flemish Liberal, Guy Verhofstadt, prides itself on its ethical foreign policy. "A self-respecting nation should not fear the past and must have the courage to investigate possible errors," said Geert Versnick, a member of the Liberal Party, who was elected chairman of the committee yesterday.

The allegation at the heart of the inquiry is that Belgium allowed the abduction to go ahead and that its officials in the provicincial capital, Lubumbashi, either encouraged, or failed to prevent, the assassination. Contemporary diplomatic telegrams focussed on the popularity of Lumumba, and one cable from then African Affairs Minister Harold d'Aspremont Lynden argued that "the most important objective for Congo, Katanga and, of course, Belgium, is the final elimination of Lumumba." The inquiry will have the right to examine all archive document and summon the many surviving witnesses.

Belgium controlled the Congo for around 80 years before acceding to growing calls for independence, backed by Lumumba's National Congolese Movement which campaigned for autonomy from 1958. During independence ceremonies attended by Belgium's King Baudouin in 1960, Lumumba made a fierce attack on the country's colonial rulers and praised the African's victory over European invaders.

Such rhetoric alarmed a Belgian government concerned to protect its economic interests, and fuelled wider western concern that the Congo would fall under Soviet influence.

Lumumba's death helped clear the way for the takeover of Congo by Mobutu Sese Seko, who changed the country's name to Zaire and it on a broadly pro-Western path until his overthrow in 1997.

Ironically the Belgian government was yesterday forced to condemn the arrest of Francois Lumumba - the murdered leader's son - who is a critic of the Congolese President Laurent Kabila. Francois Lumumba, who has started a hunger strike in protest at not being given reasons for his arrest, was detained on his return from Brussels where he took part in a TV debate about his father.