Congo Says Troops Are Hunting Leader of Coup Attempt
By Daniel Balint-Kurti
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page A28
KINSHASA, Congo, June 12 -- Congo's government said Saturday it was hunting a renegade presidential guard who led a failed coup and then fled the capital, chased by army vehicles and helicopters.
Forces loyal to President Joseph Kabila on Friday routed soldiers led by the guard, Maj. Eric Lenge, after he briefly took over state radio and announced he was "neutralizing" Kabila's transitional government. "We are continuing to chase Eric Lenge," Simon Tshitenge, the deputy information minister, said. "We will capture him."
Kinshasa was rocked by artillery early Friday, as presidential guards fought Kabila loyalists, diplomats and witnesses said.
The coup attempt was the latest spate of violence to shake Kabila's 14-month-old power-sharing government, established to end a 1998-2002 war that left an estimated 3.3 million dead.
In a state television address late Friday, Kabila said the attempted coup by Lenge, a trusted aide frequently photographed behind the president at official functions, would "be severely repressed."
Kabila reiterated his support for the peace process that is to lead to elections next year.
Kudura Kasango, a Kabila spokesman, said Lenge's military vehicle was found abandoned as troops were pursuing him south of the capital, Kinshasa, in the direction of Angola. He did not give further details.
Meanwhile, Congo's main opposition party and some Congolese media and citizens accused Kabila of fabricating the coup attempt to delay elections and justify increasing his powers.
"To us, it looks like a masquerade in very bad taste," said Valentin Mubake Nombi, an official of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, asking how Lenge managed to flee with only about 20 soldiers protecting him.
Nombi said Kabila aimed to strengthen his popularity after violent anti-government protests earlier this month, and said the president may try to use the coup attempt to get increased powers.
Congo's deputy information minister denied the allegations. "I don't know how anyone can say it was a masquerade. The facts are there for all to see," Tshitenge said.
In the east, fighting continued between the army and rebellious troops led by Col. Jules Mutebutsi and Brig. Gen. Laurent Nkunda, the two renegade commanders behind the June 2 capture of the border town of Bukavu, Congolese authorities said.
The Congolese officials again accused the government in neighboring Rwanda of backing the renegades, a charge Rwanda has denied.
The local commander, Brig. Gen. Mbuza Mabe, said by telephone that his forces had clashed with renegade forces in the village of Kamanyola, in gold-rich South Kivu province, for a third day.
Tshitenge said two Rwandan tanks coming from the Rwandan border shot at Congolese troops at Kamanyola, and then entered the village with about 800 troops to support Mutebutsi.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company