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Loyalist troops foil coup attempt in Congo

Presidential aide said to be ringleader

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- Forces loyal to Congo's leader crushed a coup attempt yesterday by renegades within his own presidential guard in fighting that sent gunfire and explosions echoing through the capital of Africa's third-largest nation.

The crisis was the second this month for the 14-month-old government led by President Joseph Kabila, established to close a 1998-2002 war that was Africa's deadliest ever.

Kabila, appearing on state TV in khaki uniform hours after the uprising's leaders were sent fleeing, told Congolese to brace for future challenges. "Stay calm, prepare yourself to resist -- because I will allow nobody to try a coup d'etat or to throw off course our peace process," he said.

"As for me, I'm fine," added the president, whose appearance quashed rumors he had been injured or killed.

At stake was the stability of Congo, and with it central Africa. Congo's five-year war had drawn in the armies of five foreign African countries. Relief workers say the war killed 3.3 million people.

By late afternoon, the officer behind the coup attempt was on the run south of the capital with 21 of his men, pursued by loyalist troops, presidential spokesman Kadura Kasonga said.

The officer, Major Eric Lenge, had been a trusted aide frequently photographed behind Kabila at official functions, including Kabila's 2001 inauguration -- which followed the assassination of Kabila's father by his own bodyguards.

Lenge launched the coup attempt by commandeering state broadcast centers after midnight. He announced he was "neutralizing" the transition government.

Condemning Kabila's government as ineffective, Lenge appealed to members of Congo's armed forces to stay in their barracks and accede to the takeover.

Loyalist forces routed Lenge and his fighters from the broadcast headquarters, sending the mutineers retreating to a presidential guard base in the capital.

Information Minister Vitale Kamerhe then appeared on state airwaves before dawn to declare "the situation entirely under control," without a shot fired.

Some of Lenge's forces later appeared in the heart of the capital, on foot, and in two tanks and an armored personnel carrier crowded with troops, diplomats said -- allegedly trying unsuccessfully to surrender to either the US or British embassies or Congo's UN mission.

Most of Congo's sprawling capital, Kinshasa, appeared to have slept through the immediate attempt to seize power. Heavy gunfire and tank-cannon blasts woke up the city around daybreak, however.

Diplomats said loyalist forces were battling the dissident forces at their barracks. Diplomats and residents also reported gunfire around Kabila's private residence.

Congo government and military leaders described Lenge and his followers breaking out of the base and fleeing, first to Kinshasa's international airport and then to the south of the city.

Security forces had arrested 12 of the fleeing men, Kabila said on state TV.

It was unclear how many troops took part in the failed coup. Accounts by officials ranged from 20 to the low hundreds.

Diplomats said the dissident forces expressed grievances about pay, which has been held back in part or in full by the government for months.

Yesterday's coup attempt took place two days after government forces to the east retook a town on Rwanda's border from renegade former rebel fighters.

Capture of Bukavu after the seven-day takeover had ended the greatest military crisis for the postwar government, trying to secure a country the size of Western Europe ahead of promised 2005 elections.

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