WORLD NEWS

Congo names third American in a foiled coup plot as mourners gather in Utah to remember plot leader

May 21, 2024, 6:00 PM

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 26: Democratic Republic of Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi attends talks wi...

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 26: Democratic Republic of Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi attends talks with Chinese Premier Li Qiang at the Great Hall of the People on May 26, 2023 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Thomas Peter - Pool/Getty Images)

(Photo by Thomas Peter - Pool/Getty Images)

Congo’s army spokesman on Tuesday released the name of the third American involved a foiled coup plot in Kinshasa, while family members in Utah gathered to mourn Christian Malanga, the eccentric leader of the brazen and ill-fated attack targeting the presidential palace over the weekend.

Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge told The Associated Press the third American was Taylor Thomson. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Thomson was among those arrested or killed on Sunday morning following the attack on the palace and another on the residence of a close ally of President Felix Tshisekedi.

Malanga, described as a naturalized American by Ekenge, was killed in a shootout at the palace after resisting arrest. The State Department said it could not confirm Malanga was a U.S. citizen. The other two confirmed Americans involved were a convicted marijuana trafficker, Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, and Malanga’s 21-year-old son, Marcel.

Authorities were still trying to untangle how Marcel Malanga went from playing high school football in Utah to allegedly trying to unseat the leader of one of Africa’s largest countries.

“My son is innocent,” his mother, Brittney Sawyer, wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Monday, declining to elaborate.

Sawyer had regularly posted proud family photos on social media, including one in December showing Marcel, a young sister and a toddler hugging in matching Christmas pajamas. In 2020, she posted photos of Marcel lifting weights and dancing during COVID lockdown.

In a Facebook post early Monday, Sawyer angrily wrote that her son had followed his father. “This was an innocent boy following his father. I’m so tired of all the videos being posted all over and being sent to me. God will take care of you people!”

One video that circulated on social media over the weekend showed her son alongside a bloodied white man, whose identity was unclear, both covered in dust and surrounded by Congolese soldiers. Marcel has his hands raised and a frightened look on his face.

On Monday, at the West Jordan home of Malanga’s mother, Chantal Malanga, relatives gathered to mourn the deceased leader. A steady flow of friends dropped by with plates of food and to offer condolences.

Sydney, a cousin of Christian Malanga’s who answered the door, told AP the family was feeling “heartbroken” and “so raw” after learning of his death. They were discussing plans for a possible funeral in Utah, she said, without giving further details.

It wasn’t clear how Malanga had recruited the other Americans for his ill-fated attack on the Congolese state. His connection to Zalman-Polun, who in 2015 pleaded guilty to trafficking marijuana, appeared to be through a gold mining company that was set up in Mozambique in 2022, according to an official journal published by Mozambique’s government, and a report by Africa Intelligence newsletter.

American businessman Cole Ducey, also named as an official in the mining company in the Mozambique journal, said he met Christian Malanga when the two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance a few years ago and briefly explored investing together in mining concessions in Mozambique. Ducey said he also met Zalman-Polun, whom Malanga had met in Washington, D.C.

Ducey said they never discussed the political situation in Congo or Malanga’s desire to be part of the government there. Ducey said he eventually decided not to go into business with the two men.

“We simply viewed a couple mining concessions in Mozambique,” Ducey said of Malanga. “I didn’t know him very well but from what I gathered he wasn’t very intelligent.”

He said he had no contact with Malanga and Zalman-Polun in about two years and was shocked to read about their alleged involvement in a violent coup attempt.

“I had nothing to do with this and was not involved in any way,” said Ducey, who was in Eswatini on Monday, referring to reports in the Congolese media naming him among the attackers.

The alleged coup attempt began at the Kinshasa residence of Vital Kamerhe, a federal legislator and a candidate for speaker of the National Assembly of Congo. His guards killed the attackers, officials said.

Malanga, meanwhile, was live-streaming video from the presidential palace in which he is seen surrounded by several people in military uniforms wandering around in the middle of the night. He was later killed while resisting arrest, Congolese authorities said.

Congo officials have not commented on how the attackers were able to get inside.

Dino Mahtani, who worked in Congo for years as a journalist and then a political adviser to the U.N. between 2015-18, told the AP that Malanga had likely been tricked or betrayed.

“Its really difficult to imagine how 20, 30 guys thought that by storming the presidential palace when nobody is around at 4 a.m. in the morning could somehow take over the Congolese state,” he said. “It could be external plotters, but given his previous close relationship with at least one of Tshiskedi’s current military commanders, there’s some chance the plot was known about internally.”

—-

Donari reported from Dakar, Senegal; Schoenbaum from West Jordan, Utah; and Biesecker from Washington.

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Congo names third American in a foiled coup plot as mourners gather in Utah to remember plot leader