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Government officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo tried to calm the public Tuesday a day after scores of young men attacked the state TV broadcaster, the capital’s airport and other sites in what may have been an attempted coup.
Monday’s assault was the latest bout of violence to rack the central African nation, which has seen nearly incessant wars involving foreign armies and militias for decades, particularly in the east.
International and local news reports said the attack, which also involved a military barracks, appeared to involve untrained youths in civilian clothes with old military equipment. Reuters reported that it may have been more a political statement than an attempt to seize power in the country’s capital.
The Associated Press said more than 40 of the attackers had been killed in Kinshasa, along with an unknown number in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi.
"We have total control of the situation," government spokesman Lambert Mende was quoted as saying. Mr. Mende told the BBC the attackers at the state TV and radio headquarters had been armed with weapons such as knives.
There was "no chance of them even to maintain their positions, even for a single hour,” he said.
News agencies said the attackers were supporters of Paul Joseph Mukungubila, an evangelical Christian religious leader who has been critical of the government. The AP quoted him as saying the attack was in response to a military raid on his residence.
"My disciples were angry. And they took what they could which was a bunch of sticks. My disciples were never armed," Mr. Mukungubila told AP. “They went to show what we are capable of. I am a man of peace, and this was not a premeditated action.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Mukungubila, who ran against President Joseph Kabila in the 2006 election, had recently accused Kabila of being too close to Paul Kagame, president of neighboring Rwanda. He also criticized Kabila's decision to make peace with the Tutsi rebel group M23 in eastern Congo.
Rwanda’s involvement in Congolese politics has been a source of tension and criticism for years. Kabila’s father Laurent rose to lead Congo when Rwandan-backed troops ousted the country’s long-serving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
M23, which most observers believe is funded by Rwanda, announced last month that its 18-month armed insurrection was over in eastern Congo and that it would instead pursue its grievances through political negotiations.
According to Reuters, political tension has risen within the country amid speculation that Kabila may seek a third term in 2016 against a fragmented opposition. That would require changing the constitution, though. Many see the defeat of M23 as strengthening Kabila’s grip.
Western rights activists and observers have long warned that Congo, with abundant natural resources, remains fragile, particularly in the east, where dozens of other armed groups are waiting to fill the void left by M23’s withdrawal. That includes the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, a militia made up of Hutus. Hutus are the largest ethnic group in Rwanda, and Hutus led the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in that country.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch criticized Kabila’s government, and the United Nations, for not doing more to exert state authority in the east and for not doing more to bring alleged war criminals to justice.
“In the wake of defeating the M23, the Congolese government and the U.N. must address the threat posed by groups like the FDLR…. This should include efforts to encourage combatants to disarm voluntarily, restore state authority in areas controlled by armed groups, and arrest leaders wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“To date, however, such efforts have been insufficient. Little has been done to curb abuses or investigate, arrest, and prosecute those most responsible for them. The government also has no official program for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants. In the past, some combatants have gone to regroupment sites to await such a program, but many gave up on waiting and returned to their militia groups.”