May 24, 2006

Congo arrests 32 foreigners in “coup plot”

By Willy Kabwe

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese authorities said on
Wednesday they had arrested 32 foreigners, including South
Africans, Nigerians and Americans, in what they called a
suspected coup plot ahead of historic elections in July.

But diplomats and security sources played down the
announcement, saying they believed the alleged plot had to do
with domestic political rivalries and posed no real threat to
the upcoming July 30 parliamentary and presidential polls in
the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They will be the first multi-party polls in four decades in
the vast central African country, a former Belgian colony.

"About 30 people claiming to work for a security company
have been arrested. They say they were working for the company
but our information suggests they had other intentions,"
government spokesman Henri Mova Sakanyi told Reuters.

Diplomats said the 32 arrested included 20 white South
Africans working for a South African security firm in Congo,
Omega Risk Solutions. They were being accused of spying.

Sakanyi said the group would be put on trial. "They wanted
to destabilize the institutions of the country, that means a
coup attempt," he said.

Kemal Saiki, spokesman for the United Nations mission in
the Democratic Republic of Congo, said the UN had learned of
the arrests from the announcement by the Congolese authorities.

"We've noted it. It was announced very publicly, but we

no information that it was any kind of threat to the
election process," he told Reuters.

A Congolese security source said he believed domestic
political motives were behind the arrests.

"It's not as big as people are saying it is. I don't think
there was any real coup threat," he said, asking not to be

Election campaigning in Congo is heating up as the election
approaches. The landmark polls are intended to draw a line
under a five-year war which was officially declared over in

But fighting by rebels and renegade militias has continued
in many parts of the vast country, especially the east,
prolonging a humanitarian crisis that has killed 4 million
people since the conflict first began in 1998.

Incumbent President Joseph Kabila is among 33 candidates
running for the presidency, which also include former rebel
leaders he fought against. Several thousand candidates have
applied to stand for 500 parliamentary seats.

A Western diplomat said the foreigners arrested were being
accused of being mercenaries, as they had recently returned
from working in Iraq.

"This is a clear sign that things are getting very tense in
Kinshasa in the lead up to the elections," a regional analyst,
who declined to be named, said. "It is not clear whether this
is a front to clamp down on people."

The UN has its biggest peacekeeping force in the world in
Congo, but its 17,000 soldiers and policemen deployed there are
thinly stretched.

The European Union has also agreed to deploy a peacekeeping
force to Congo during the elections to help with security.

(Additional reporting by David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher in