Congolese officials temporarily placed President Laurent Kabila's son in charge of the government today, a day after numerous foreign officials said the ruler of this troubled nation was shot and killed during a coup attempt.
Communications Minister Dominique Sakombi Inongo, who made the announcement on state-run television after an emergency Cabinet meeting, insisted Kabila was injured but alive.
The news came as Congolese officials appeared to be struggling to fill a power vacuum in the already unstable, natural resource-rich Central African country, where a 2 ½-year civil war has turned into a regional conflict involving troops from a host of African nations.
As dawn broke over the capital today, tanks and soldier-filled trucks patrolled quiet and empty streets as helicopters cruised overhead.
The younger Kabila, Joseph, is already head of the armed forces and was reported to have been injured in the coup attempt. State-run television broadcast footage of him sitting alone silently, though it was not immediately clear when the images were recorded.
Reports of His Death Have Been Widely Disputed
Presidential spokesman Lambert Kaboye earlier said in a telephone interview that the elder Kabila was evacuated overnight to an undisclosed country, where he was receiving intensive treatment. He declined to elaborate.
A lobbyist and public relations consultant who acts as Kabila's spokesman in the United States, however, said the president had been fatally shot.
"He's died," John Aycoth said Tuesday by telephone from Durham, N.C., citing top-level Congolese officials.
Officials from Angola, Congo's close ally, also said Kabila had been killed.
In Zimbabwe, another ally, top-ranking government officials told the state-run news agency today that Kabila died en route to the capital, Harare, where he had been evacuated for his safety. The government was waiting for instructions on what to do with the body, according to the unidentified officials.
A member of Kabila's security entourage said late Tuesday on condition of anonymity that a bodyguard had shot the president in the back and right leg during 30 minutes of intense gunfire at the president's Kinshasa residence.
French and Belgian Foreign Ministry officials quoted local sources as saying they believed Kabila died of his injuries following the gunfire. Belgium is Congo's former colonial ruler and retains close ties with the nation, formerly named Zaire.
Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Louis Michel said in a radio interview this morning that he had received reports that Kabila was killed following a disagreement with some of his generals.
"The latest information we have seems to suggest there were differences between the president and a certain number of generals that went badly," Michel said. He said it was unclear whether it was a general or a bodyguard who fired at Kabila.
A Tense Situation In Belgium, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said the country is preparing to evacuate its nationals from Congo if necessary. He said Belgium would send two C-130 military cargo planes to Libreville, Gabon.
A number of Kabila's bodyguards were arrested and the homes of others were being searched today in the wake of the shooting, the wife of one of the bodyguards said on condition of anonymity.
Kabila came to power in May 1997 following a Uganda- and Rwanda-sponsored rebellion against former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabila's hold over the army has grown increasingly tenuous in recent months, with some troops reportedly threatening to revolt over pay demands. Young recruits make as little as $10 a month.
After the shooting, state television broadcast an appeal for calm by presidential aide Eddy Kapend. Local journalists witnessed Kapend being escorted by Angolan soldiers, who in recent months have played a dominant role in Kabila's alliance of Congolese and foreign troops.
The conflicting reports on Kabila's death came hours after witnesses described gunfire around his home. A presidential helicopter later landed at Kinshasa's main hospital, a government official who witnessed the event said, adding there were unconfirmed reports that the aircraft was carrying Joseph Kabila, who had apparently been injured.
The Life of a Rebel
The elder Kabila has been fighting a civil war since August 1998, when rebel forces backed by his former allies, Rwanda and Uganda, turned against him. In the war's early stages, the rebels reached the outskirts of Kinshasa before being turned back by Kabila's army, which is now supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Speaking from Brussels, Kin-Kiey Mulumba, a spokesman for one of the main rebel movements, insisted Kabila was dead. The shooting proved that the Congolese people wanted a change, he said, denying that rebels had anything to do with it.
"Something big happened in our country this afternoon. People want change," he said Tuesday.
The world community initially welcomed Kabila, who many hoped would be an improvement over Mobutu's decades-long rule, which left his nation desperately broke and with an infrastructure that barely functioned.
But Kabila quickly alienated himself, inviting close friends and
relatives into the government, angering investors and obstructing a
U.N. investigation of reports that his rebel army had slaughtered
thousands of Hutu refugees.