PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South African police arrested 19 suspected members of a Congolese rebel group Tuesday morning, accusing them of plotting to overthrow their nation's government after it recently came under attack by militants said to be backed by neighboring Rwanda.
The arrests in South Africa's northeastern Limpopo province come as the rebel group known as M23 and Congolese officials continue peace talks in Uganda after its militants seized and later withdrew last year from a provincial capital. The United Nations also is discussing sending more troops and drones for its peacekeeping force in eastern Congo.
Members of the police's Special Task Force, a counterterrorism and hostage-rescue unit, arrested the rebels in raids in locations it described as being in the "periphery areas" of Limpopo, according to a statement. The province borders the nations of Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Under South African law, police typically have 48 hours to arraign suspects, meaning the alleged rebels should appear in court by Thursday. The police statement said those arrested would face charges of violating South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act, which bars people from plotting coups or mercenary activities in foreign nations.
Authorities offered contradictory information Tuesday about whether those arrested belonged to M23, which seized and later withdrew last year from Congo's eastern city of Goma. Local media initially reported the South African Police Service identified those arrested as belonging to M23. Later Tuesday, however, police issued a statement simply referring to those arrested as rebels without any description.
Brig. Lindela Mashigo, a police spokesman, told The Associated Press that he could neither confirm nor deny whether those arrested belonged to M23.
"They are still being processed," Mashigo said.
Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama, an M23 spokesman, could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday. Congo's Information Minister Lambert Mende said he had no information about the arrests and had not been in contact with South African authorities.
The M23 rebellion is led by fighters from a now-defunct rebel group, who agreed to lay down their arms on March 23, 2009, in return for being allowed to join the Congolese army. The rebellion began in April, when hundreds of soldiers defected from the military, saying the accord had not been respected.
Most analysts believe the origin of the rebellion is a fight over Congo's vast mineral wealth, a good chunk of which is found in the North Kivu province where Goma is the capital. Starting last spring, the rebels began seizing small towns and villages in North Kivu. That culminated with their capture Nov. 20 of Goma, a population hub of 1 million and a key mineral trading post. M23 rebels later pulled out of the city Dec. 1 after facing international pressure to withdraw.
Congo's mineral-rich east has been unstable, and often engulfed in fighting, since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The M23 are fighters mainly from the Tutsi ethnic group that was targeted for extermination during the genocide and are believed to be backed by Rwanda. The Rwandan government denies that it supports the group, despite multiple claims by human rights groups and a United Nations experts' report last year linking it to the rebels.
The M23 is accused of numerous abuses, including raping civilians, using child soldiers and conducting summary executions.
Congo, sub-Saharan Africa's biggest country, is estimated to have mineral deposits worth trillions of dollars. However, it lacks roads and railways, as its feeble government and weak army remain unable to control much outside of its capital, Kinshasa.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.