Assailants armed with machetes and automatic weapons attacked the state television station, the airport and the main military base in Congo's capital Kinshasa 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.
"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. Jessy Kabasele, the presenter of Le Panier, or The Breadbasket show heard a commotion at around 8:10 a.m. local time, including screams.
Kabasele said he thought it was a simple fight, but then saw his colleague running out of the studio.
"It's then that I understood that we were in danger," he said. The TV editing rooms were empty, and colleagues were cowering under tables, he said. More than a dozen men then burst in.
"They were wearing civilian clothes, and they were carrying sticks, and pieces of wood, and they had a menacing air about them. They came into the studio and started hitting us," he said. "They tied me up with the tie I was wearing. They made me kneel down."
Fringe evangelical preacher
The intruders said they wanted to broadcast a message on behalf of a fringe evangelical preacher in Congo, Joseph Mukungubila, who considers himself a prophet, but the signal to the TV station was cut before they could do so. The men then started beating the journalists, several of whom were seriously wounded. They were saved when the military arrived sometime later.
At roughly the same time, other assailants attacked the airport and a military base, said Pascal Amisi, the deputy chief of staff of Congo's Minister of Communications. "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."
On a Facebook page believed to belong to Mukungubila, a statement was issued and entitled, "Communique from the Press Office of the Prophet Joseph Mukungubila on the Recent Events in Congo."
He said that the events leading to Monday's attack began Sunday in Lubumbabshi, where children handing out a letter by Mukungubila were apprehended by the military. The letter accused President Joseph Kabila, who is from eastern Congo near the border with Rwanda, of being "a foreigner," and said that a foreigner cannot be at the head of the country.
The message said the military on Monday attacked Mukungubila's house in Lubumbashi, killing several of his followers. It was in the wake of these alleged crimes, the statement said, that they launched their attack. The statement does not go into the details of the attack in Kinshasa, saying only that Mukungubila's followers control the airport in the town of Kindu, and part of the city of Kisangani.
These claims could not immediately be verified.
With a population of nearly 66 million, Congo, sometimes known as Congo-Kinshasa, spans a territory as large as Western Europe. It has twice gone to war with its smaller neighbour 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. The nation has remained among the poorest in the world under both Kabila and his father who ruled before him. Elections in 2011 gave the younger Kabila a second term, but the vote was widely criticized as fraudulent.
Commercial flights turn around
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.