PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Nineteen alleged members of a Congolese rebel group — including one U.S. citizen — sought help in their effort to overthrow Congolese President Joseph Kabila, offering mining rights in their resource-rich country in exchange for weapons and training, a prosecutor said Thursday.
But the men the 19 found in South Africa to help their cause were not mercenaries. They were undercover police officers.
Belonging to an organization called the Union of Nationalists for Renewal, the men sent an email "wish list" asking for machine guns, radios and even surface-to-air missiles and arranged for a training camp, prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told a magistrate judge at a court hearing in Pretoria, South Africa's capital.
The alleged conspirators remained under watch by officers for months but never made it to their training camp. The only weapons Abrahams said the group was offered came the night before the arrests, when undercover police officers coaxed the men to pose for photographs with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Abrahams said the plot — apparently led by a man who claims to be the eldest son of Congo's assassinated President Laurent Kabila — posed a serious danger to the stability of a nation long engulfed by conflict. The men wanted to "wage a full-scale war" in mineral-rich eastern Congo, Abrahams said. "The accused would take back the (Congo) by coup and conventional warfare."
Police arrested the men Tuesday as they were on their way to what they believed would be a training camp to prepare for their armed attack in Congo, Abrahams said. Two men from the group are on the run and believed by police to still be in South Africa: leader Etienne Kabila and a man called "General Yakatumba," Abrahams said. Kabila claims to be the son of Congo's assassinated president, something the Kabila family denies. Laurent Kabila's son Joseph Kabila is the current president of Congo.
Congo's Information Minister Lambert Mende told The Associated Press on Thursday the government wants those accused to be extradited to face justice in Congo.
"Concerning the so-called Etienne Kabila: We know this is not his first coup (attempt); he has always been used for a long time by all the enemies" of Congo, Mende said.
One of the suspects was identified as James Kazongo, a U.S. citizen. U.S. Embassy spokesman Jack Hillmeyer said the embassy has confirmed Kazongo's identity and his U.S. citizenship.
"South African authorities got in touch with our consular officers, who have visited him. We have been in touch with him and communicated with his family and provided consular services," Hillmeyer told the AP.
Making deals on Congo's mineral resources in exchange for armed support to take power has been a pattern set by rebels for decades, including when Laurent Kabila came to power in the 1990s. Records of mineral deals still show the names of Zimbabwean generals who sent troops to fight alongside Kabila's then rebels against longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Magistrate Maryke de la Rey ordered the men held until a bail hearing Feb. 14.
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Johannesburg and Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .