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Congo Time Line

  Congo Opposition Leader Released

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 28, 1997; Page A17

Congo's leading opposition figure was released early this morning from several hours of detention and interrogation that touched off scattered violence by his supporters.

Mobs of young men burned several cars and trucks, rampaged through three gas stations and torched dozens of tires to protest his incarceration by the Congolese government. Soldiers loyal to newly installed President Laurent Kabila fired warning shots in the air several times to disperse rock-throwing crowds.

Kabila's troops detained the longtime opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, Thursday night after he apparently refused to attend a meeting with the president. In addition, the three-time former prime minister had given a speech Thursday in apparent violation of a government ban.

After his release, Tshisekedi appeared tired but undaunted as he spoke before dawn to a small crowd of supporters gathered outside his house in a suburb east of Congo's capital. Standing on a chair, Tshisekedi told the crowd of about 250 that during his detention, military officials, specifically a man who identified himself as the deputy minister of defense, had reminded him that Kabila's government has banned political rallies and speeches.

"They told me I have lots of influence over the press and I must muzzle the press," Tshisekedi said. "They told me to abandon politics. I call on all supporters to battle all kinds of dictatorship."

"These methods recall the era of Mobutu's police," Tshisekedi told the crowd, referring to his longtime adversary, ousted president Mobutu Sese Seko. Tshisekedi headed the political opposition to Mobutu, but it was an armed rebellion by Kabila that finally toppled the dictator after nearly 32 years in power.

Tshisekedi and Kabila have engaged in a intermittent power struggle ever since Kabila's rebel forces swept into Kinshasa on May 17, driving Mobutu into exile. Tshisekedi considers himself the rightful prime minister of Congo, but Kabila has ignored his claim to power and has not offered him a position in the new government.

While Tshisekedi does not seem to have the following to challenge Kabila's authority, Kabila's treatment of the opposition leader illustrates a broader problem faced by Congo's five-week-old government. After bringing an end to the corrupt and repressive rule of Mobutu and his cronies, the new leadership seems uncomfortable accepting the idea of political opposition and open debate. Upon seizing power, Kabila banned political rallies and activities for two years except for those of his own Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo.

Raphael Ghenda, Congo's information minister, said there was nothing unusual abut Tshisekedi's detention.

"Events? What events?" he replied when asked about the occurrences Thursday night. "When the police think it is necessary to stop someone, they do it. It is done all over the world. When they think it is necessary to interrogate someone, they do it."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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