OPPONENTS plotting to overthrow President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo came shopping in South Africa for an arsenal of weapons and arranged military training for young Congolese exiles at a farm in Modimolle, a state prosecutor said on Thursday.
But they were unaware that their elaborate conspiracy had been infiltrated as long ago as last September by South African security agents, who had video and audio recordings of their key meetings, prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court.
He said that police were hunting two prominent anti-Kabila personalities who were still thought to be in the country.
Magistrate Maryke de la Rey remanded the 19 suspects in custody until February 14. They were arrested on their way to the farm before dawn on Tuesday and charged with breaking the Foreign Military Assistance Act, Mr Abrahams said.
Their military training had been due to start on the morning of their arrests, he said.
Naomi Kok, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said that although pro-opposition exiled groups were not uncommon in South Africa, the prosecution case outlined on Thursday was unique.
"In terms of what looks like a rebel group preparing for armed action, we have not seen something like that in South Africa," she said.
All the accused were said to be members of a Congolese opposition movement called the Union of Nationalists for Renewal (UNR).
"The UNR are intent on unseating President Kabila by unconstitutional means," Mr Abrahams told the court.
The prosecution said evidence gathered by the police undercover operation and by state witnesses included a "wish list" of weaponry, including 20 surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and 5,000 AK47s as well as 50 satellite telephones and $125,000 in cash. Mr Abrahams said the conspirators held meetings in several venues, including Zahava’s restaurant in Norwood, Johannesburg and Maxi’s at the N1 Caltex garage in Midrand.
The first accused at Thursday’s hearing was a dual US citizen named as James Kazongo, who said he had arrived in South Africa only two days before he was arrested with the others. "We have had no showers or change of clothes since we were arrested. We have been held in inhuman conditions," Mr Kazongo said.
Mr Kabila took office in Kinshasa in 2001 shortly after the assassination of his father, president Laurent-Désiré Kabila, and then won elections in 2006. He was re-elected in 2011, although opponents said the election was rigged.
Such are the security threats in Congo that 19,000 United Nations peacekeepers are stationed in the country and South Africa is one of the African states pushing for a separate force of at least 4,000 soldiers to fend off rebels groups in eastern North Kivu province.
President Jacob Zuma’s government is considered by most analysts of the Great Lakes region to be a close ally of Congo.
One of the two Kabila opponents named in court and said to be on the run in South Africa, was Gen William Amuri Yakutumbu, the leader of one of several rebel groups in South Kivu known as "mai-mai".
The other alleged leader was named as Etienne Kabila, a minor political figure who says he is Joseph Kabila’s half-brother, a link which the Congo president denies.