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South African institute discounts "coup plot" theory following arrests

JOHANNESBURG, 26 May 2006 (IRIN) - The South African-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has ruled out chances that the men arrested and identified as foreign mercenaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were plotting a coup or planning to destabilise the country ahead of 30 July elections.

Security agents in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, arrested 32 foreigners on Tuesday: three Americans, 10 Nigerian passport holders and 19 South African passport holders. They were arrested on charges of plotting to destabilise the country. Ten local opposition presidential candidates were also arrested in connection with the alleged plot.

All the South Africans were employees of Omega International Association, a company the DRC government contracted to train harbour personnel. According to DRC government spokesman Henri-Mova Sakanyi, state security agents, who arrested the men, also found documentary links to a coup plot in their apartments.

"About 32 persons claiming to work for a security company have been arrested," Sakanyi said on Wednesday in Kinshasa. "They say they were working for a security company but our information suggests they had other motives. They wanted to destabilise the country, and that means a coup attempt."

He also claimed that some of the alleged mercenaries had confessed that they were plotting a coup with unnamed local politicians. In an analysis released early on Thursday, ISS senior researcher Henri Boshoff said there was no real threat of a coup or any form of destabilisation in the DRC, but rather the arrests could have been linked to internal political rivalry.

He said the fact that the South African nationals were arrested in the company of three Americans who were in the country to take up guard duties around opposition leader Oscar Kashala, who is one of 33 presidential candidates, suggested both companies were acting within the law at the time.

"It is not beyond reason to suggest that the arrest of the alleged mercenaries is linked to their involvement with an opposition candidate," Boshoff said.

He said the arrests could also be in line with a recent proclamation by the DRC Ministry of Defence, which said opposition candidates should not have more than 25 bodyguards, a number which analysts view as insignificant when compared with President Joseph Kabila's 10,000-strong presidential bodyguard.

"The international community, including the diplomatic and UN missions in the country do not believe that there were any plans to topple the Congolese government, but rather attribute it to political rivalry," Boshoff said.

The ISS said the Omega chief executive officer, Alex De Witt, had on Monday made "useful and supportive" presentations to the South African Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, which is at the moment examining the country's proposed Mercenary Bill. Omega has since expressed its worry, saying the men were arrested as a result of misunderstandings.

Boshoff also said it would have been far-fetched for the alleged mercenaries to plan to stage a coup when a 16,500-strong UN peacekeeping force was in the country.

The ISS analysis came as 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 said the coup allegation was a plot by the government to divert attention from the elections and the failures of the transitional government.

News agencies also quoted a senior Congolese military intelligence official as saying there was no merit behind the coup allegations. He said domestic political motives could have been the main motivation for the arrests.

However, South African President Thabo Mbeki said on Thursday that the laws of the DRC should be applied strongly against any South Africans arrested in connection with the case if the allegations were found to be true.

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