KINSHASA, 13 May 2005 (IRIN) - An attempt to secede from the Democratic Republic of Congo was foiled recently in the southeastern province of Katanga, the deputy government spokesman, Simon Tshitenge, told IRIN on Friday.
"There was an attempt to secede in Katanga. The first results of the investigation undertaken by the security services proved it," he said.
He added that military officers in the province were implicated, and that several members of the presidential guard based in the city were behind the plot.
This was the first official government statement following a wave of arrests of politicians and military officers suspected of being behind the conspiracy.
"Before justice is done, all those arrested are presumed innocent but suspect. Investigations are continuing," Tshitenge said.
At least 35 civilians and military officers, and possibly at least 100, according to the Katanga-based Centre for Human Rights, have been arrested. They include Andre Tshombe, son of the late Moise Tshombe, Congo's one-time prime minister who led Katanga's secessionist war in the 1960s. He is the leader of a local political party.
The vast majority of those arrested were members of ethnic groups from southern Katanga, which is the province with the greatest mineral wealth.
On Monday, Katanga Deputy Governor Chikez Diemu said those arrested were people of all ages. He said judicial and security agents had made the arrests on 6 May in the southeastern Katangese town of Lubumbashi.
The detainees, he added, were being questioned over their participation in a network "whose aim was to destabilise the Congolese institutions".
President Joseph Kabila visited Lubumbashi on Sunday, but his spokesman declined to confirm whether or not his visit was related to the arrests.