Congo Confirms President Is Dead

K I N S H A S A, Congo, Jan. 18, 2001 -- Congo's government has confirmed that President Laurent Kabila is dead, ending two days of secrecy and rumors that began when the leader of the deeply troubled Central African nation was reportedly gunned down at his palace.

Communications Minister Dominique Sakombi made the announcement in a statement broadcast on state-run television tonight.

"Congo is in mourning," said Sakombi, who sat in a leather chair in front of a smiling photograph of Kabila. "He gave entirely the best years of his life for the freedom of the Congolese people."

Sakombi said Kabila, 59, died at 10 a.m. today, despite reports from numerous foreign officials that he died soon after being wounded in 30 minutes of intense gunfire at his residence Tuesday. The government insisted throughout that Kabila was wounded but alive.

Power Transfers to Kabila's Son

On Wednesday, Cabinet officials thrust Kabila's son, Joseph, into power, naming him temporary head of government to fill the power vacuum that has threatened to throw the vast, war-torn nation into even more turmoil. The younger Kabila, who already headed the armed forces, has made no public statements.

Initial reports indicated that Joseph Kabila might have been wounded in the shooting. But Western diplomats said on condition of anonymity that they had met with him Wednesday in Kinshasa and that he showed no signs of injury.

Tuesday's shooting and the questions about the elder Kabila's fate added to the disorder in Congo, a mineral-rich nation where a 2½-year civil war has turned into a regional conflict involving troops from a host of African nations.

The U.N. Security Council has urged all sides in Congo's war to respect a shaky 1999 cease-fire and refrain from military action. Before the official confirmation of Kabila's death, heads of state gathering today at a Franco-African summit in nearby Cameroon began their conference with a moment of silence for Kabila.

Details of the Attack

Congolese officials offered no details of Tuesday's attack at the palace, and the circumstances were still murky.

A member of Kabila's security entourage said Tuesday on condition of anonymity that a bodyguard shot the president in the back and right leg. French and Belgian Foreign Ministry officials quoted local sources as saying they believed Kabila died of his injuries. A number of Kabila's bodyguards were arrested, and the homes of others were searched Wednesday in the wake of the shooting, the wife of one of the bodyguards said on condition of anonymity.

Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Louis Michel said in a radio interview Wednesday morning that he had received reports that Kabila was killed after a disagreement with some of his army generals. He said it was unclear whether it was a general or a bodyguard who fired at Kabila. Belgium is Congo's former colonial ruler and retains close ties with the nation, formerly called Zaire.

Kabila had 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.

But Kabila's hold over the army had grown increasingly tenuous in recent months, with some troops reportedly threatening to revolt over pay demands. Young recruits make as little as $10 per month.

Streets Return to Life

Residents of the capital returned to the streets today for the first time since the shooting and traders arrived from nearby villages with their goods, but the city remained on edge. Many markets stayed closed because their administrators didn't turn up. Stores and businesses opened late, and most parents kept their children out of school.

Soldiers deployed throughout the city in the late afternoon, sending people rushing home. But there were no immediate reports of unrest.

A rebel spokesman said the attack on Kabila caught the country's rebel forces by surprise.

"We didn't plan this. But we will not be ready to cooperate with whoever replaces Kabila unless the government is ready to end the war and talk to us," Maj. Siatilo Ngizo said.

Kabila came to power in May 1997 following a Uganda- and Rwanda-sponsored rebellion against the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The world community initially welcomed him, and many hoped he would be an improvement over Mobutu's decades-long rule, which left the nation in ruins.

But Kabila quickly alienated himself: He invited close friends and relatives into government, angered investors and obstructed a U.N. inquiry into reports that his fighters slaughtered thousands of Hutu refugees from neighboring Rwanda.