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South African prosecutors said 19 suspects accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Democratic Republic of Congo were seeking to buy weapons and set up a training camp when they were arrested.
The group was charged with engaging in mercenary activity and rendering foreign military assistance, Shaun Abrahams, a prosecutor, told the Pretoria Magistrate Court today. The suspects don’t have lawyers yet and will appear in court in seven days for a bail and immigration hearing.
South African police arrested the suspects on Feb. 5 in the northern Limpopo province after an undercover investigation, Abrahams said. The group, belonging to a rebel movement known as the Union of Nationalists for Renewal, had planned to use income from mining concessions in Congo to purchase as many as 5,000 rifles, 1,000 grenades and 40 missiles, he said. They were planning to train in Limpopo under the cover of a camp for game rangers combating rhino poaching, Abrahams said.
Congo, which is almost the size of Western Europe, has struggled to control its border regions since the official end of almost a decade of war in 2003. More than a dozen rebel groups are based in eastern Congo, some of which have threatened to overthrow the president. Most of the groups have fewer than 1,000 members and often support themselves through illegal taxation or mineral smuggling from the gold, tin and coltan-rich region.
One of the largest groups, known as M23, occupied the eastern city of Goma in November for 11 days and threatened to continue to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, before pulling back its troops. Uganda is hosting talks between the rebels and the Congolese government in Kampala, the capital.
Two suspects, Etienne Kabila and a person identified as General Yakutumba, who is suspected of being the group’s military leader, are still at large, said Abrahams, who last month secured a terrorism conviction against Nigerian militant leader Henry Okah.
A U.S. consular officer has met with James Kazongo, a U.S. citizen who is among the 19 arrested, John Hillmeyer, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, said by phone today.
Congo’s government has been told by South African officials that Etienne Kabila is the same person that Congolese authorities accuse of being involved in previous rebel plots, said Congolese Communications Minister Lambert Mende.
According to a 2011 United Nations report by the independent Group of Experts on Congo, Etienne Kabila returned to Congo in 2011 to start an armed rebellion after nearly a decade in exile in South Africa. Kabila says his father was former Congolese leader Laurent Desire Kabila, according to the report, making him the half brother of President Joseph Kabila.
“He’s been named in all these plots for 15 years,” Mende said by phone from Kinshasa. “He spends his time going from conspiracy to conspiracy.” Etienne Kabila isn’t related to the president, he said.
While in Congo in 2011, Etienne Kabila met with members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Rwandan rebel group with leaders who may have links to the 1994 genocide in that country, according to the experts report. He also met with a militia group known as Mai Mai Yakutumba to discuss the rebellion, according to the report.
Mai Mai Yakutumba, led by the self-appointed General William Amuri Yakutumba, is based in South Kivu province and was behind a series of pirate attacks on Lake Tanganyika in 2011, according to the UN. Yakutumba’s group says it’s protecting the indigenous population against foreigners, mainly from neighboring Rwanda, according to letters the group sent to boat owners in 2011.
Yakutumba’s phone didn’t connect when Bloomberg called him today seeking comment.
Rwanda has long supported rebel groups in eastern Congo, and has provided weapons and training to M23 rebels, according to the Congolese government and UN experts. Rwanda denies the allegations.
To contact the reporters on this story: Brian Latham in Johannesburg at firstname.lastname@example.org; Michael J. Kavanagh in Kinshasa at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nasreen Seria at firstname.lastname@example.org