Rebels from an outlawed political-religious group attacked Kinshasa’s central prison on Wednesday, breaking out their leader and about 50 other prisoners, the Congolese government said.
“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.
According to a local resident, the attack began just before dawn when there were “prolonged exchanges of fire”.
One of the prisoners on the run told AFP he had managed to escape during violent clashes between the attackers and the prison guards.
A lawmaker, Nsemi is the spiritual leader of the BDK which has called for an insurrection against Kinshasa.
He 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.
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 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.