KINSHASA - Congolese security forces repelled a wave of coordinated attacks in the capital Kinshasa and other cities on Monday, in fierce gun battles that left more than 70 assailants and three troops dead, the government said.
Armed youths believed to be loyal to a pastor who challenged President Joseph Kabila in elections seven years ago stormed the state television station, the international airport and the military headquarters.
A government spokesman said more than 70 attackers had been killed, 52 of them in Kinshasa, while three troops had died in the fighting in the capital.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said on state television that "39 terrorists were captured, including two wounded who were given medical treatment" and that nine civilians were also injured.
Defence Minister Alexandre Luba Ntambo told journalists the situation was now "totally under control" and an investigation was under way
"Now we have to find out who the assailants are," he said, as he inspected the sites targeted in Monday's attacks.
Ntambo sought to downplay the attacks, saying many residents of the capital "didn't even notice anything was happening".
However, the United Nations said its troops in the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo had been placed on alert following the violence in the capital, the second city Lubumbashi, and the eastern town of Kindu.
UN spokesman Martin Niersky said UN troops stationed at the airport had engaged the gunmen at the airport, where a staff member was wounded during the exchange of fire.
"The UN mission in the country, MONUSCO, has taken measures to ensure the safety and security of its staff and placed troops in these locations on alert," Niersky said in New York.
The identity of the assailants remains unclear, although a television station employee said they had claimed loyalty to pastor Joseph Mukungubila Mutombo, one of the candidates who challenged Kabila in 2006 elections.
In an open letter dated December 5, the pastor expressed bitterness at the way the country was being run and showed his hate for neighbouring Rwanda, which once invaded the DR Congo and is accused by the United Nations of backing rebels.
He charged that Kabila was too close to Rwanda.
Both men are from the resource-rich southeastern state of Katanga, where the president was visiting when the attacks took place on Monday.
Shots were fired at Mukungubila's residence and church in Lubumbashi on Monday, according to a human rights activist. Another of his churches at nearby Kolwezi was also targeted.
Kinshasa has mostly remained free of the conflicts that have long engulfed the mineral-rich east of the giant African nation.
The violence erupted on Monday morning at the offices of state broadcaster RTNC near parliament, as well as the international airport and the main military base in Kinshasa, causing panic among residents.
All flights into and out of the capital's main airport have been halted.
The US embassy said it had "received multiple reports of armed engagements and fighting around Kinshasa", together with reports of numerous military and police checkpoints and barricades.
Shooting was also heard near the army headquarters known as the Tshatshi camp, residents and a journalist said.
'Terror on eve of New Year festivities'
Before the RTNC television feed was cut, two young presenters were seen on screen, appearing frightened but calm, with a young man standing behind them seemingly threatening them.
The assailants "are armed with machetes and guns. They have taken reporters hostage. An operation is under way to dislodge them", police spokesman Colonel Mwana Mputu told AFP.
"We don't have the impression that the attackers had any other objective -- in such small numbers, with such weak weaponry -- but to seek... to spread panic and terror on the eve of the New Year's festivities," Mende said once the television link was restored.
Several sources linked the attacks to the nomination Saturday of a new national police chief to replace the incumbent, who has been accused of involvement in the murder of a well-known rights activist.
The DR Congo is rich in a wide range of minerals and its eastern provinces have been in turmoil since even before Kabila took office in wartime in January 2001, following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila.
Monday's unrest comes the month after the national army, or FARDC, achieved a rare and striking military success in the strife-torn eastern North Kivu province over a powerful armed movement, the M23, which surrendered in neighbouring Uganda.
The capital has by contrast remained relatively calm, apart from an apparent coup bid in 2003 blamed by police on troops loyal to ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was overthrown by Laurent-Desire Kabila in 1997. The attempt was quickly quashed.