Rebels from an outlawed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo staged a prison break in the country’s capital, freeing their spiritual leader and 50 other inmates, the government announced.
“Followers of the Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK) attacked Makala prison at dawn and broke out around 50 prisoners, including their guru, Ne Muanda Nsemi,” government spokesman Lambert Mende said, indicating that police had given chase.
BDK has called for an insurrection against Kinshasa. Nsemi – a self-styled prophet – was arrested along with his three wives and son in early March following a violent two-week siege of his home in Kinshasa, DR Congo’s capital.
According to a local resident, the attack began just before dawn when there were “prolonged exchanges of fire”. Other witnesses said they had heard gunfire near Makala prison at around 4 a.m. (0300 GMT) and saw prisoners wearing blue shirts with yellow collars in the streets.
One of the prisoners on the run told AFP he had managed to escape during violent clashes between the attackers and the prison guards.
The government has accused BDK followers of a string of violent attacks in western DR Congo since the start of the year.
By around 8:30 am (0730 GMT), a column of thick black smoke could be seen rising over Makala prison, with dozens of police and soldiers blocking off all access to the facility.
The United Nations warned its staff to avoid unessential movement around Kinshasa, saying the situation was calm but unpredictable.
Soldiers stopped young men for questioning near Nsemi’s house in the city’s district of Ngaliema and arresting some of them, a Reuters witness said.
Clashes between his followers and security forces have compounded wider tensions across Congo since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down when his mandate expired in December, raising fears of renewed civil conflict.
Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe told a local radio station that, aside from Nsemi, the prison’s most prominent prisoners, including political opposition leaders and soldiers convicted in the assassination of former President Laurent Kabila, had not escaped.
The dramatic assault took place as DR Congo marks 20 years since the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country — which was then known as Zaire — with an iron fist for more than three decades.
Mobutu was ousted by rebel chief Laurent-Desire Kabila, father of the embattled current President Joseph Kabila.
BDK stands for “Kingdom of the Kongo” in the Kikongo language, and its members want to restore an African monarchy that once included what is today Kongo Central (formerly Bas-Congo) along with parts of Angola, the Republic of Congo and Gabon.