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PRETORIA (Reuters) - Nineteen Congolese rebels, including a naturalised U.S. citizen, were charged in a South African court on Thursday with plotting a coup against the government in Kinshasa which they planned to finance, if successful, through mineral concessions.
The group, who appeared in court in Pretoria, were led by U.S.-Congolese citizen James Kazongo and had been under surveillance by an elite South African police unit for months before their arrest this week, prosecutor Shaun Abrahams said.
Abrahams said police received information in September that the group, a wing of a little-known rebel militia called the Union of Nationalists for Renewal (UNR), were planning a coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
"To enable them to achieve this, they required large quantities of arms and ammunition and specialised military training," Abrahams told the court. "They did not have access to finances but would pay with mining concessions in the DRC."
He said police had a "wish list" emailed to an undercover officer asking for satellite phones, cash, weapons and ammunition, including 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 1,000 grenades and a quantity of missiles.
In February, Abrahams said the undercover policeman met Kazongo, who said he was trying to recruit mercenaries, and confirmed the "wish list" as well as his intention to overthrow the DRC government.
In an elaborate sting, police then told the rebels they would be housed on a farm in the northern province of Limpopo under the guise of an anti-rhino-poaching training camp.
The men would pose as trainee game rangers, justification for them carrying weapons and sophisticated gadgets, Abrahams said.
The case was postponed to Feb 14 to allow for the group to get lawyers.
According to court documents, the UNR consists of 9,000 rebels opposed to the rule of President Joseph Kabila and want him removed by "unconstitutional" means.
Outside the courtroom, a handful of demonstrators said South Africa favoured Kabila's leadership over democratic reforms in the resource-rich nation because it wanted to protect the business interests of its citizens there.
"South Africa benefits from the DRC's resources. Why would they want to stand up against the dictator?" said Chefdufil Mudie, a Congolese refugee who has been living in South Africa for 12 years.
Reporting by Peroshni Govender; Editing by Ed Cropley and Jon Hemming