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Americans apparently arrested in Congo amid accusations of coup attempt

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – NOVEMBER 02: President of Congo Felix Tshisekedi speaks during an Action on Forests and Land Use event on day three of COP26 on November 02, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. 2021 sees the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference will run from 31 October for two weeks, finishing on 12 November. It was meant to take place in 2020 but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)  (Chris Jackson)
By Katharine Houreld Washington Post

Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said Sunday they had arrested several foreigners who were allegedly involved in a thwarted coup attempt after a shootout in the capital left three people dead.

The short official statements did little to address questions raised by the apparently amateur tactics of the alleged plotters and their ease in accessing one of Congo’s most secure sites.

Congolese army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge told state television in a brief statement that the coup attempt had been swiftly stopped by Congolese security forces.

The U.S. ambassador tweeted that she had received reports that U.S. citizens were involved, and local media published footage of two men under arrest, their hands clasped pleadingly, with pictures of a passport that indicated one was a 36-year-old U.S. citizen born in Maryland. Media reports indicated that three other Americans were also arrested. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

“I am shocked by the events of this morning and very concerned by reports of American citizens allegedly involved,” U.S. Ambassador Lucy Tamlyn tweeted in French. “… We will cooperate with DRC authorities to the fullest extent as they investigate these criminal acts and hold accountable any U.S. citizen involved.”

Congo is home to nearly 100 million people, and endemic corruption and repeated civil wars mean most people live in desperate poverty despite the central African nation’s mineral riches, which include gold, copper, nickel and cobalt – vital for the world’s green energy transition.

Elections were supposed to be held for parliamentary leadership over the weekend, but they were postponed by President Félix Tshisekedi. He won a second term in a chaotic December vote that was widely criticized for poor planning and lack of transparency.

The three deaths reportedly occurred at the residence of Vital Kamerhe, a member of parliament previously jailed for corruption but now running to become speaker, which was allegedly attacked before the presidential palace.

“Two of the police officers assigned to his guard, as well as one of the attackers, lost their lives,” Kamerhe’s spokesman Michel Moto Muhima posted on X.

The coup attempt appears to have been led by Christian Malanga, a 41-year-old man who set up a political organization among the Congolese diaspora in the United States and proclaimed himself president of Congo in exile. Congolese intelligence suspected him of previously trying to assassinate Congo’s then-President Joseph Kabila, said Dino Mahtani, who has held senior positions for the United Nations in Congo.

Mahtani said Congolese intelligence had previously told him that Malanga was a former U.S. military officer of Congolese origin; Malanga himself posted online that he had been an Air Force junior ROTC cadet and had led a Congolese military unit. The Washington Post was not immediately able to verify that information, and Malanga’s fate was still unclear late Sunday.

One of the Americans arrested had a passport in the name of Benjamin Zalman-Polun, according to Congolese television. His social media profiles described him as an American cannabis entrepreneur. A 2022 article in Africa Intelligence had connected Zalman-Polun to Malanga’s gold business in Mozambique.

In videos posted on Malanga’s Facebook page and other social media earlier Sunday, men in military uniforms can be seen wandering somewhat aimlessly around the presidential palace, taking down flags, chanting “New Zaire” and filming themselves waving weapons and swearing. There are at least two White men wearing masks. At one point, an American accent off camera says “it’s jammed”; at another point, someone says in English, “Felix, we’re coming for you” – using a racist slur rarely used in Congo.

In most of the videos posted online, the men do not have weapons; one is leaning against a wall. There is no sign of resistance – or a plan. In another video, a man presumed to be Malanga screams, “Felix, you’re out” while armed men behind him check their phones or adjust their berets before producing a flag associated with Zaire, the country’s former name.

The amateur nature of the coup attempt and the way the group of men were able to access one of Kinshasa’s most heavily guarded government sites with so little resistance provoked many questions among Congo watchers.

“Obviously, Malanga has been used by somebody,” Mahtani said. “There’s many people unhappy with the president inside the Congo and ambitious powers outside the Congo who want him removed – and a lot of it connects to resource ambitions, including gold.”