DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Assailants armed with machetes and automatic weapons attacked the state television station, the airport and the main military base in Congo's capital in what appeared to be a coup attempt early Monday, before being repelled by the country's military, officials and witnesses said.
Congo's government spokesman Lambert Mende confirmed the attack, saying around 40 people were killed in the exchange of fire Monday morning, including 16 at the military base, 16 at the airport and eight at the TV station. Another six were captured, he said. He also confirmed that shooting had broken out in Lubumbashi, the country's second-largest city located in southeastern Congo, though by afternoon calm had returned.
"These are terrorists, you can't call them anything else," Mende said.
Most residents of this sprawling African capital first realized the attack was under way while watching a morning talk show on Radio Television Nationale Congolaise, the state broadcaster. The presenter of "Le Panier," or "The Breadbasket" show, was in mid-sentence, when the intruders burst in. They had time to identify themselves as being devotees of a local prophet, before the signal on state TV was cut, said Pascal Amisi, the deputy chief of staff of Congo's Minister of Communication. Between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. local time, gunmen also attacked the international airport and the military camp in the capital housing the country's senior army leaders, he said.
"They attacked three different targets at the same time," said Amisi. "We don't know for sure who they are but the group that attacked the TV station said they were representing Prophet Mukungubila," he said, naming Gideon Mukungubila, an evangelical Christian leader in Congo, who has built-up a following and who broadcasts messages on local TV and radio. "Around 30 men attacked the TV station while the 'Le Panier' show was in progress. They came in with knives and said they had a political message to share, before the signal was yanked."
At the state TV station, an employee who was inside the building when the attack began described a scene of confusion, and terror.
"There were around 30 armed men who burst into the headquarters of the television station. They started firing, and we hid," said the employee who refused to give his name out of fear for his safety. He said that before they were chased out, they had time to scream out, "Gideon Mukungubila has come to liberate Congo from the slavery imposed on us by Rwanda."
With a population of nearly 66 million, Congo spans a territory as large as Western Europe. It has twice gone to war with its smaller neighbor to the east, Rwanda, which as recently as this year was accused of propping up a rebel group, ensconced in Congo's eastern forest.
President Joseph Kabila, who is himself from the east and is derided by his opponents as being "Rwandan," came to power in 2001, after the assassination of his father, warlord Laurent Kabila. The elder Kabila marched his rebel army into Kinshasa in 1997, grabbing power in a coup.
Even in a place that has suffered numerous coups, and whose remote forests are still home to armed groups, the attack in the capital on Monday came out of left field, surprising many. International flights that were about to land in Congo made U-turns in the air, including one carrying more than 100 passengers including The Associated Press' local correspondent.
"We took off this morning for Kinshasa, and after one hour in the air, the pilot announced that the airport was under attack," said Saleh Mwanamilongo by email, after his flight returned to South Africa. "The pilot went on the intercom to say, 'We have just learned that there is gunfire at the Ndjili Airport, and as we cannot land, we will need to return to Johannesburg.'"
In an emergency message, the American Embassy in Kinshasa said it had received reports of armed engagements and fighting throughout Kinshasa, as well as indications that numerous police and military checkpoints had been erected. "The embassy urged all U.S. citizens to stay in place and not travel around the city until further notice," the statement said.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Johannesburg.