GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo – Yesterday, more than 50 armed men, some wearing army uniforms, attacked the Presidential Palace and a Congolese military installation in the capital of Kinshasa. The attackers, armed with weapons ranging from machetes to rocket-propelled grenades, did not manage to break through the first security checkpoint. The fighting lasted for approximately 20 minutes, with heavy weapons heard around the president’s residence, before the assailants were chased out of the area in the direction of Kokolo camp, the largest garrison of arms and ammunition in Kinshasa.
The attack happened shortly after President Kabila arrived back from a weekend retreat at his personal farm outside of the capital. The president and his family are reported safe. Presidential spokesperson Lambert Mende reported 10 dead and a number of casualties among the assailants, along with an additional 30 individuals taken prisoner. An important deployment of army and police units with tanks and heavy weaponry has been observed throughout Gombe, Kinshasa’s business district, but the situation now seems to be under control and returning to normal.
The cause of the attack is still under speculation; however the attackers were reportedly seen coming into Kinshasa across the Congo River from neighboring Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. State prosecutors are still trying to determine if this was in fact an attempted coup. On U.N. Radio Okapi, Mende reassured the country that the upcoming general elections would proceed as scheduled. He went on to say:
Arrests have been made among the squad that came out this operation as an attempt to attack the President. Institutions are in charge. The country is running normally. We invite people to consider this information and help security forces now deployed to better qualify the facts, to secure the city and the country so that we continue our journey towards the normal elections that the Congolese people expect all their wishes. There are certainly many remaining questions. But it is neither our duty nor our right to engage in rumor-mongering. We leave it to the security services, and justice to interview the conspirators who have been arrested. And I think that within a few hours, days, relevant departments will inform the public, the media, the ins and outs of this criminal act which was fortunately contained…
But Mende’s assurance is not enough to sweep away people’s fears of recurring attacks against the country’s institutional symbols. In December 2010, National Order Chancellor General Faustin Munene was arrested in Congo Brazzaville after he was said to be fomenting a rebellion to topple Kabila from power. By mid-January, about 70 or so of his alleged troops were arrested in Bas-Congo. Additionally in January, unknown armed actors took hold of Luano airport in Lubumbashi, Katanga province, for several hours. The assailants broke into the airport arms and ammunitions dump, and hoisted up the Katangese secessionists’ flag before they were reported repelled by the national republican guard.
Only a month later, it is Kinshasa’s turn and many Congolese citizens are now asking, “who’s responsible and what’s next?” This being an election year has only muddled the search for truth. Many are now speculating that the recent attacks are the result of a common front from the primary opposition groups to the president made up of former Kabila campaign director Vital Kamerhe and Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Whether true or not, it will not be surprising to see the ministry of justice conclude that opposition leaders such as Tshisekedi or Kamerhe were behind yesterday’s attack as a means to give the Kabila regime an excuse to crackdown on opposition parties and activities nationwide.
As the Congolese government, citizens, and international observers continue the search for answers in the wake of this most recent attack, it will remain critical that the U.S. and the international community condemn attempted violence to disrupt the constitutional time frame for Congo’s upcoming elections in November.
Photo: Congolese President Joseph Kabila (AP)