PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Nineteen alleged members of a Congolese rebel group — including one U.S. citizen — sought outside 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 those 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 and other high-powered weapons.
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 paramilitary training camp in South Africa's northeast Limpopo province to prepare for their armed attack in Congo, Abrahams said. Their cover, the prosecutor said, was to pretend to be training as game rangers to fight the unchecked poaching of rhinoceros in South Africa.
The men first met the undercover officers of the South African Police Service in September, Abrahams said, after investigators received a tip the coup plotters wanted assistance in preparing for battle. The men met off and on for weeks with the officers at restaurants and a hotel, once showing a map with the locations of the Union of Nationalists for Renewal's some 9,000 rebels, the prosecutor said. An email sent later asked for thousands of machine guns and grenades, as well as missiles, cash, radios and satellite phones, he said.
The alleged rebels acknowledged they had no cash, but promised the undercover officers they'd get mining rights in the country's east as payment for their services, Abrahams said. Congo, sub-Saharan Africa's biggest country, is estimated to have mineral deposits worth trillions of dollars. However, it lacks roads and railways, as its feeble government and weak army remain unable to control much outside of its capital, Kinshasa.
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.
Two men from the Congo group are on the run and believed by police to still be in South Africa: leader Etienne Kabila and a man called "General Yakutumba," 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.
The man identified as "General Yakutumba" could be William Amuri Yakutumba, a former Congo army captain who now runs his own anti-Rwanda militia in eastern Congo. Congo's mineral-rich east has been unstable, and often engulfed in fighting, since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The rebel group M23 briefly took over the capital of an eastern province late last year before withdrawing.
One of the suspects who appeared Thursday in court was James Kazongo, a U.S. citizen who lives in Middletown, Delaware. Kazongo at one point told undercover officers the group wanted to overthrow the Congolese government and asked for mercenaries and for the items on the email "wish list," Abrahams said.
However, Kazongo in court politely and calmly denied the allegations, saying he only arrived in South Africa four days earlier.
"I entered legally into South Africa and I'm allowed to stay in South Africa for another three months, but now I don't want to," he told Magistrate Maryke de la Rey at one point.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jack Hillmeyer later said that consular officials had 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.
Kazongo's wife Jeannine, reached by the AP in Delaware, confirmed her husband had been arrested, but declined to comment further.
Some of the other arrested men knew only French and Swahili. Several told de la Rey that they had been denied access to lawyers and their family and had been beaten by police. Nearly all requested to see a doctor for medical treatment.
The men face charges of violating South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act, which bars people from plotting coups or mercenary activities in foreign nations. De la Rey ordered the men held until a bail hearing Feb. 14, where prosecutors could present more evidence. That could include the surveillance video, photographs and audio that Abrahams said police captured at every meeting with the accused rebels.
The men, who have yet to hire lawyers, did not enter pleas at Thursday's hearing.
The arrest of the alleged coup plotters represents the latest example of South Africa finding itself caught in the middle of international intrigue. In January, a South African judge found Nigerian Henry Okah, an alleged gunrunner and leader of a militant group in Nigeria,, guilty of plotting a dual car bombing in his country that killed at least 12 people and wounded dozens more on Oct. 1, 2010.
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.