A South African court on Thursday formally charged 19 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rebels with plotting to stage a coup in their home country.
The group is accused of seeking weapons and military training to topple President Joseph Kabila and was subject to a special police sting operation.
“They intended on unseating President Kabila unconstitutionally,” government prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told the Pretoria Regional Court.
Abrahams said they are members of an obscure rebel group called the Union of Nationalists for the Renewal (UNR) of the DR Congo. One of them claims he holds US citizenship.
The would-be putschists were not asked to enter pleas and were ordered to return to court on February 14.
The case was also adjourned to allow investigators to verify their identities and for the suspects to engage lawyers.
Meanwhile, a group of DR Congo nationals living in South Africa gathered at the court to voice support for the suspected rebels, dismissing the case against them as politically motivated and orchestrated by Kabila.
The group was arrested Tuesday in a pre-dawn raid in a remote part of South Africa’s northern and vast province of Limpopo.
South African elite police acted on a tip-off about the presence of the group in the country in September last year and infiltrated it.
The police “received credible information about a coup and that there were rebels in South Africa to get military assistance,” said Abrahams.
An undercover state agent held meetings with a member of the group who had “confirmed that they belong to UNR and intended to overthrow the Joseph Kabila government”.
He said they “required large quantity of arms and ammunition and specialised military training,” said Abrahams.
They also promised to “pay mercenaries with mining concessions” in the diamond-and-gold rich country.
An exchange of emails showed a wish list of equipment and services the rebels wanted. These included satellite phones, assault rifles, missiles, radios and military training.
The training was intended to pass as anti-rhino poaching training for game rangers.
But some Congolese immigrants in Pretoria voiced support for those arrested, saying they had fallen into a “trap”.
Waving their country’s flag, a small group of Congolese flashed the V-sign for victory and yelled anti-Kabila slogans at the court building.
“We came to support our brothers who fell into a trap. It is a plot. This case is fabricated,” said Barthelemy Kalenga, leader of the Congolese community in Pretoria.
Around 300,000 Congolese immigrants live in South Africa.
The prosecution says it has video, audio, pictorial and other evidence to prove its case.
When the trial is over in South Africa, the group will be extradited to Kinshasa, according to the National Prosecution Authority.