By Bienvenu Bakumanya
KINSHASA (Reuters) – Congolese soldiers repulsed attacks on the airport, a barracks and the state television headquarters in Kinshasa on Monday in what authorities said appeared to have been an assault by followers of religious leader Paul Joseph Mukungubila.
Before transmission was shut down at the state television, gunmen shouted what appeared to be a political message against President Joseph Kabila, who took office in 2001 after the assassination of his father Laurent.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said 40 of the 70 assailants in the capital had been killed. “We have total control of the situation,” he said.
“The attackers presented themselves as supporters of Mukungubila. We are checking because this could be an attempt to fool us.” He said there were no civilian or troop casualties.
Kabila’s supporters said the assault was carried out by poorly organised youths in civilian clothing with aged military equipment and appeared to be more a political statement than a serious attempt to seize power in a city of more than 9 million people.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast country at the heart of Africa, is struggling to emerge from decades of violence and instability, particularly in its mineral-rich east, in which millions of people have died, mostly from hunger and disease. The country is home to a 21,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO).
Shortly after the clashes in Kinshasa, Congo’s army exchanged heavy fire with Mukungubila’s followers in the mining province of Katanga, more than 1,500 miles (2,400 km) to the southeast near the border with Zambia.
Witnesses said the fighting erupted after soldiers attacked Mukungubila’s church in the regional capital Lubumbashi, but calm was quickly restored.
Gunmen had briefly seized the headquarters of state radio and television in Kinshasa, taking several journalists hostage. Witnesses also reported shooting at the Tshatshi military camp, close to the Defence Ministry, and at the international airport on the city’s outskirts.
“Gedeon Mukungubila has come to free you from the slavery of the Rwandan,” said the message given on state TV in the local Lingala language, according to a Reuters reporter who saw a tape of the transmission. Gedeon is the nickname used for Mukungubila by his followers.
A voice off camera could be heard to say in Lingala: “Kabila, it’s finished for him from today. He will be mocked.”
Mukungubila, who calls himself ‘The prophet of the Eternal’, ran unsuccessfully for the presidency against Kabila in 2006. Opponents of Kabila, who was educated in Tanzania and Uganda, often accuse him of being a foreigner in an attempt to tarnish his reputation.
Mukungubila has been an outspoken critic of a peace deal signed this month with the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group in eastern Congo, accusing Kabila’s government of bowing to Tutsi interests and pressure from neighbouring Rwanda.
“This was an adventure without any future. You cannot hope to take the city of Kinshasa with what we saw here,” said Jean-Pierre Kambila, a political advisor to Kabila.
In Kinshasa, streets emptied and shopkeepers closed their shutters as the attack sowed panic among the population. The areas around the barracks and television HQ were cordoned off and riot police patrolled the streets in jeeps.
“We want peace here in Kinshasa. We are surviving from one day to the next. With their adventures, Kabila and the others are ignoring our suffering. We have had enough,” said Betty, a banana saleswoman on Boulevard 30 Juin in central Kinshasa.
Political tension has risen in Kinshasa amid speculation that Kabila may try to change the constitution and run for a third term in 2016 against a fragmented opposition. The defeat of M23, the country’s most important rebel group, strengthened his grip on power.
(Reporting by Bienvenu Bakumanya; writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Janet Lawrence)