Kinshasa (AFP) – Congolese security forces repelled a wave of coordinated attacks against symbols of power in the capital Kinshasa and other cities on Monday, leaving dozens of assailants dead in a day of fierce gun battles.
Armed youths believed to be loyal to a pastor who challenged President Joseph Kabila in elections seven years ago stormed the state television station RTNC and took several reporters hostage.
Gunfire erupted at the RTNC premises near parliament as well as the international airport and the main military base in Kinshasa, causing panic among residents.
“We were subjected to well-orchestrated attacks in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Kindu,” a government source said, but added: “The situation is under control everywhere.”
Kinshasa has mostly remained free of the conflicts that have long engulfed the mineral-rich east of the giant African nation.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende told AFP that 16 attackers had been killed at the airport, 16 at the military headquarters and eight more at the RTNC premises.
An AFP journalist saw the bodies of at least 24 people at the Ndjili international airport. All flights to and from Kinshasa have been halted in the wake of the violence, travel agencies said.
The motives of the attackers were not immediately clear but Mende said the attack on the eve of New Year festivities was aimed at terrorizing Kinshasa citizens.
He said no casualties had been reported among civilians or the security forces.
A television station employee said the hostage takers had claimed loyalty to pastor Joseph Mukungubila Mutombo, one of the candidates who challenged Kabila in 2006 elections.
In an open letter dated December 5, Mukungubila expressed bitterness at the way the country was being run and showed his hate for neighboring Rwanda, which once invaded the DR Congo and is accused by the United Nations of backing rebels.
The pastor charged that Kabila was too close to Rwanda.
Gunfire was heard near Mukungubila’s residence in DR Congo’s second city of Lubumbashi on Monday, according to rights group Justicia.
The attack took place as Kabila was visiting Lubumbashi in the mineral-rich south-eastern province of Katanga — the economic heart of the country.
The U.S. embassy said it had “received multiple reports of armed engagements and fighting around Kinshasa,” together with reports of numerous military and police checkpoints and barricades.
“The embassy urges all U.S. citizens in Kinshasa to stay in place and not travel around the city until further notice,” it said in a statement.
“There’s panic in the city, people are asking what is happening,” a local resident told AFP, adding that he had seen police and military officers deploy around the RTNC building and the nearby parliament.
Shooting was also heard near the army headquarters known as the Tshatshi camp, residents and a journalist said.
Police officers, soldiers and Kabila’s Republican Guard fanned out across the capital to restore security.
Before the RTNC television feed was cut, two young presenters were seen on screen, appearing frightened but calm, with a young man standing behind them seemingly threatening them.
The assailants “are armed with machetes and guns. They have taken reporters hostage. An operation is under way to dislodge them,” police spokesman Colonel Mwana Mputu told AFP.
“We don’t have the impression that the attackers had any other objective — in such small numbers, with such weak weaponry — but to seek… to spread panic and terror on the eve of the New Year’s festivities,” Mende said once the television link was restored.
He asked residents to resume their normal activities and not to worry about the security deployment.
Several sources linked the attacks to the nomination Saturday of a new national police chief to replace the incumbent, who has been accused of involvement in the murder of a well-known rights activist.
The situation in the capital had calmed by the end of the day, although isolated gunshots could still be heard.
The DR Congo is rich in a wide range of minerals and its eastern provinces have been in turmoil since even before Kabila took office in wartime in January 2001, following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila.
Monday’s unrest comes the month after the national army, or FARDC, achieved a rare and striking military success in the strife-torn eastern North Kivu province over a powerful armed movement, the M23, which surrendered in neighboring Uganda.
The capital has by contrast remained relatively calm, apart from an apparent coup bid in 2003 blamed by police on troops loyal to ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was overthrown by Laurent-Desire Kabila in 1997.
The uprising was rapidly quashed.
A second coup bid attributed to renegade forces in the presidential guard took place in June 2004, but was also swiftly put down, according to the government and the large UN mission in the troubled country.