Belgium blamed for icon's murder

Ministers and king knew of the plot to kill Lumumba, MPs say

Belgian government ministers bore "moral responsibility" for events leading to the murder of the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, a parliamentary inquiry found yesterday.

In a messy, controversial end to 40 years of soul-searching about one of the darkest chapters of the country's colonial past, MPs said that King Baudouin knew of the plans to get rid of the charismatic African leader, but did nothing to save him.

It is the first time for more than half a century that parliament has criticised the normally sacrosanct monarchy.

No single conclusively incriminating document was found in the two-year inquiry, but it did unearth a telegram from Count Harold d'Aspremont Lynden, then minister for African affairs, which spoke of Lumumba's "definitive elimination".

Two Belgian officers linked to other attempts to kidnap or kill Lumumba operated under Aspremont Lynden's "political responsibility", the MPs said. He and other ministers lied about their role.

Lumumba, an articulate nationalist, was freed from jail in 1960 and elected prime minister when the Belgians left the vast country they had ruled with a mixture of greed, and paternalism since King Leopold II won his "place in the sun" 80 years earlier.

But there was a bloody civil war, provoked by an attempt by the copper-rich province of Katanga to secede. This was led by Moise Tshombe, who recruited Belgian, French and South African mercenaries to fight the elected government. Lumumba was deposed by an unknown colonel, Joseph-Désire Mobutu, who took over, renamed the country Zaire, made a fortune from western mining companies and ruled with an iron fist until he was overthrown in 1997.

Geert Versnick, chairman of the all-party commission, said the inquiry had concluded that the execution of Lumumba and two colleagues on January 17 1961 was carried out by police officers from Katanga, and watched by Belgian officers paid by Brussels.

They had been transferred to Katanga on a Sabena plane on the orders of Aspremont Lynden and the Belgian foreign minister, Pierre Wigny.

The commission was set up after the 1999 publication of a book by Ludo De Witte, an Africa expert, which claimed that there was clear evidence of Belgian state responsibility for the murder. He accused the Belgians of carrying on where the CIA had left off.

Later Gerard Soete, a former police commissioner, claimed that he had helped chop Lumumba's body into pieces and dissolved it in acid. In a macabre twist, he kept two of the victim's teeth for a time.

The commission was told that King Baudouin, shocked by Lumumba's famous attack on Belgian colonialism - "humiliating slavery imposed on us by force" - at the independence ceremony in 1960, knew of plans to eliminate him.

"We are not going to allow an undertaking spanning 80 years to be destroyed by the hateful politics of one man," the king was reported to have written in October that year.

Ultimately inconclusive arguments about the king's precise role turn on handwritten notes on a letter from Colonel Guy Weber, a military adviser to Tshombe, to Baudouin, referring to the "neutralisation" of Lumumba.

Admired and reviled in life, Lumumba became in death an icon of the African liberation struggle, seen as a victim of cold war power politics in which he was falsely labelled a communist. But he was no innocent in Congo's tribal struggles, and acted ruthlessly against the secessionists.

"Neither Congolese nor Belgians have exorcised the demons of the past," the commission said.

The foreign minister, Louis Michel, is expected to issue a statement with a view to bolstering Belgium's standing in Congo and central Africa. By coincidence, he will tour of the Great Lakes region next week.

The investigation uncovered details about secret funds, plots and the name of a mixed-race assassin known only as Georges, controlled by a shadowy colonel who admitted that he had been offered "a crocodile hunter" to "bump off Lumumba".

The investigators raided houses and confiscated suitcases full of documents. A code breaker was brought in to decipher diplomatic communications.

Many witnesses claimed to be unable to remember anything and an angry Mr Versnick accused them of having a "selective memory".

Dan Schalk, a Socialist MP, called for a debate on the role of the royal family in the light of the inquiry.

"Even if Belgium didn't explicitly order Lumumba's death in writing," he said, "it refrained from asking for him to be kept alive when it knew exactly what awaited him."


Ian Black in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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