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32 "mercenaries" arrested in Kinshasa

KISANGANI, 24 May 2006 (IRIN) - Security agents in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), arrested 32 foreigners on Tuesday for plotting a coup against the government of Joseph Kabila, Interior Minister Theophilus Mbemba said.

"They came from Iraq, where they had worked as soldiers," Mbemba said on Wednesday from Kinshasa. The 12 South Africans, 10 Nigerians and three Americans - all of whom the government described as mercenaries - were working in Kinshasa for a private security company called Omega. Mbemba said the men were caught with military equipment but would not specify the nature or number of the equipment that was seized because the case is still under investigation.

Some of those arrested were without passports. The South African ambassador to the DRC, Sisa Ngombane, said 19 of the men held South African passports, which needed checking. "We would rather send passport details to our security services for verification of the holders' South African nationality," he said.

South Africa has a law prohibiting its citizens from engaging in mercenary activity.

Mbemba said the United States and Nigerian embassies had not yet confirmed the nationalities of the detainees.

Some people in Kinshasa have expressed doubts about the veracity of the government's claim that the men are mercenaries. "It is a joke," said a Roman Catholic priest on condition of anonymity. "Which foreigner can try a coup in this country at a time when the international community is here with the 16,500 United Nations mission troops? This is, perhaps, a ruse to stop people exercising their vote on 30 July."

The mercenary charge coincides with another call by DRC's leading opposition party, the l'Union pour la Democratie et le progres social (the Union for the Democracy and the social progress - UDPS) of Etienne Tshisekedi, for a demonstration on Wednesday.

"We will be in the streets this Wednesday to tell the government that the [political] transition ends 30 June and that it cannot organise elections after this time without dialogue," Raul Nsolwa, the head of the UDPS Youth Wing, said.

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