DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Armed assailants who identified themselves as disciples of a self-styled prophet attacked the state television station, the airport and the main military base in Congo's capital in what many feared was a coup attempt early Monday, before being repelled by the country's military, officials and witnesses said.
Lambert Mende, Congo's government spokesman, confirmed the attacks in Kinshasa, saying around 40 people were killed in an exchange of gunfire Monday morning, including 16 at the military base, 16 at the airport and eight at the TV station. He also confirmed that shooting had occurred in Lubumbashi, the country's second-largest city located in southeastern Congo, but said calm had returned there and in Kinshasa by Monday afternoon.
"The city of Kinshasa was attacked at these three sites by a terrorist group which has not yet been identified, an unknown group that attacked the security forces who are in charge of protecting these three sites, which are of strategic importance," Mende said in a broadcast on Congolese television.
Most residents of this sprawling African capital first realized the attack was under way while watching a morning talk show on Radio Television Nationale Congolaise, the state broadcaster. Jessy Kabasele, the presenter of "Le Panier," or "The Breadbasket" show heard a commotion at around 8:10 a.m., including screams. He thought a fistfight had broken out, then saw one of his colleagues running out of the studio.
"It's then that I understood that we were in danger," he said. When he also ran out, he found the TV editing rooms empty. His colleagues were cowering under tables, he said. Before he could hide, more than a dozen men burst in.
"They were wearing civilian clothes, and they were carrying sticks, and pieces of wood, and they had a menacing air about them. They came into the studio and started hitting us," he said. "They tied me up with the tie I was wearing. They made me kneel down." The intruders said they wanted to broadcast a message on behalf of a fringe evangelical preacher in Congo, Joseph Mukungubila, who considers himself a prophet. The signal to the TV station was cut before they could do so.
At roughly the same time, other assailants attacked the airport and a military base, said Pascal Amisi, the deputy chief of staff of Congo's Minister of Communications. "They attacked three different targets at the same time," said Amisi. "We don't know for sure who they are, but the group that attacked the TV station said they were representing Prophet Mukungubila."
Mukungubila, a 66-year-old pastor, ran unsuccessfully in the 2006 presidential election. He is known as "The Prophet," and his messages broadcast on local radio and TV have won him a dedicated following in this enormous Central African nation. From his hiding place in an undisclosed location, Mukungubila confirmed to The Associated Press by telephone on Monday that his followers were behind the coordinated attacks, but he said his disciples were armed only with sticks and faced the automatic weapons brandished by the country's security forces.
He deflected questions about whether the attack was intended as a coup d'etat, saying instead that his faithful were acting out of anger after two young boys who belong to Mukungubila's congregation were attacked by security forces in Lubumbashi over the weekend. The boys, he said, were handing out a letter written by Mukungubila, which claims that Congolese President Joseph Kabila is not really Congolese and that he is a Rwandan national. The pastor said that after the boys were beaten, the last straw came on Monday at 4 a.m. when the military attacked Mukungubila's residence.
"On five separate occasions, the government has attacked me, to try to kill me. ... We are living in a real jungle here in Congo, and the international community cannot allow this to go on," he said. "This morning they again came to attack my house, and so we said enough. My disciples were angry. And they took what they could — which was a bunch of sticks. My disciples were never armed. They went to show what we are capable of. I am a man of peace, and this was not a premeditated action. My disciples are people who believe in God, and they easily took over RTNC (the state TV station), as well as the military base and the airport," he said.
With a population of nearly 66 million, Congo spans a territory as large as Western Europe. It has twice gone to war with its smaller neighbor to the east, Rwanda, which as recently as this year was accused of propping up a rebel group, ensconced in Congo's eastern forest.
President Kabila, who is himself from the east, often has been derided by his opponents as being "Rwandan." He came to power in 2001, after the assassination of his father, warlord Laurent Kabila. The elder Kabila marched his rebel army into Kinshasa in 1997, grabbing power in a coup.
Even in a place that has suffered numerous coups, and whose remote forests are still home to armed groups, the attack in the capital on Monday surprised many. International flights that were about to land in Congo made U-turns in the air, including one carrying more than 100 passengers, including the AP's local correspondent.
"We took off this morning for Kinshasa, and after one hour in the air, the pilot announced that the airport was under attack," Saleh Mwanamilongo said by email, after his flight returned to South Africa. "The pilot went on the intercom to say, 'We have just learned that there is gunfire at the Ndjili Airport, and as we cannot land we will need to return to Johannesburg.'"
In an emergency message, the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa said it had received reports of armed engagements and fighting throughout Kinshasa, as well as indications that numerous police and military checkpoints had been erected. "The embassy urged all U.S. citizens to stay in place and not travel around the city until further notice," the statement said.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Johannesburg.