- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

KINSHASA, Congo — Congolese troops put down a coup attempt by a small band of dissidents within the presidential guard yesterday, the government said, after heavy gunfire and tank shelling echoed across the Central African nation’s capital for several hours.

After a chaotic night of clashes around a military base, state broadcast stations and the presidential mansion, President Joseph Kabila declared the attempt had failed.

“Stay calm, prepare yourself to resist — because I will allow nobody to try a coup d’etat or to throw off course our peace process,” Mr. Kabila declared in a midmorning address to Congolese on state TV.

“As for me, I’m fine,” the 32-year-old leader, wearing a khaki military uniform, added.

The crisis was the latest — and the second this month alone — for Mr. Kabila’s transition government, pieced together out of loyalists, ex-rebels and opposition figures in 2003 after Congo’s devastating 1998-2002 war.

Government security forces backed by a helicopter were pursuing the purported leader of the coup attempt as he fled south of the capital with the last 21 of his men, presidential spokesman Kadura Kasonga said.

The coup attempt started after midnight local time, when an officer identified as Maj. Eric Lenge abruptly appeared on state radio to declare his forces had “neutralized” the transition government.

Power went off in the city in a blackout suspected to have been caused by the rebels.

Foreign Minister Antoine Ghonda blamed an “isolated movement” within the security forces, and said dissidents included officers of Mr. Kabila’s guard.

Most of Kinshasa’s millions appeared to have slept through the first hours of the coup attempt.

Congo government and military leaders described Maj. Lenge and his followers breaking out of the base and fleeing first to Kinshasa’s international airport, then to the south of the city, toward the Bas Congo region.

Western diplomatic officials said Maj. Lenge had called U.S. and British embassies overnight in a vain attempt to surrender after other security forces failed to join his call for a government overthrow.

The coup attempt was the second security-force uprising against the transition government led by Mr. Kabila, who took power in 2001 after his father, rebel-leader-turned-president Laurent Kabila, was killed by one of his own bodyguards.

In March, a few hundred soldiers attacked military installations in the capital. That attempt was defeated.

On Wednesday, government forces recaptured the eastern town of Bukavu from renegade ex-rebel forces, ending a seven-day takeover that had posed the greatest military and diplomatic challenge to the government.

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