07/02/2013. Members of a dissident organisation from the Democratic Republic of Congo known as the Union De Nationalistes Pour Le Renouveau shows a sign of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party after appearing at the Pretoria Regional Court on charges of menicary activity and rendering of foreign military assistance Picture: Masi Losi

Opponents of Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila in South Africa claimed this week that the arrest of 19 of their compatriots in Limpopo was staged by the DRC and South African governments to discredit them.

A mysterious DRC-born naturalised American has emerged as a key figure in the alleged plot hatched in South Africa to overthrow Kabila.

The South African Police Service’s priority crimes unit, the Hawks, swooped on the 19 early on Tuesday - evidently as they were on their way to a game farm in Modimolle, believing they were to receive military training to mount a coup in Kinshasa.

On Thursday they appeared in the Pretoria Regional Court on charges under the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, which outlaws South Africans from engaging in mercenary or other military activities abroad. It also prevents foreigners from conducting such military activities from within South Africa.

State prosecutor Shaun Abrahams said the men intended to overthrow the DRC government through conventional warfare, using high-calibre weapons, including AK-47s and ground-to-air missiles.

He said police had been monitoring them since September as they met several times at different places in Gauteng and Limpopo. Undercover Hawks agents James Jansen and James Neethling were recruited by one of the accused, Kabuka Lugaba Adrian Kilele - allegedly one of the ringleaders – to provide special military training.

The men planned to pose as potential rangers undergoing anti-rhino poaching training.

Abrahams said the men were part of a “dissident” organisation, the Union of Nationalists for Renewal (UNR) in the DRC, with between 7 000 and 9 000 members.

At least one of the 19 is also a member of the Mai-Mai, a loose military movement which has plagued the eastern DRC for decades. Eighteen of the arrested men are DRC citizens, but James Kazongo is a naturalised American citizen, who possibly holds dual US-DRC citizenship.

The state alleges he is the “newly-elected” leader of the UNR. Diplomatic sources said Etienne Kabila, a son of the DRC’s previous, assassinated leader Laurent Kabila and the current president’s half brother, had been the leader of the UNR. But the organisation replaced him with Kazongo because it wanted to avoid a Kabila “monarchy”.

Etienne Kabila was not arrested and remains on the run in South Africa, with one “General Yakatumba”, alleged military leader of the UNR.

While the 18 other arrested men had apparently been in South Africa for some time, Kazongo, who had been in the US since the 1980s, according to diplomatic sources, arrived in South Africa only a few days before the arrests.

In Yeoville in Johannesburg, where many of the DRC expatriates live, great scepticism was expressed about the arrests. “It’s all a big lie. These people were planted by South African intelligence and Kabila’s government,” one expatriate said, adding that the men had merely been political opponents of Kabila, the evidence of a coup plot “planted” on them to frame them.

Another, who said he was a member of the Mai Mai, called the coup plot a “set-up”.

The accused are due back in court on Thursday. - Sunday Argus