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Americans tell story of detainment in Congo

Two Americans captured in Congo while working for a presidential candidate are home and in good spirits — though they are still awaiting blood tests to see if they contracted malaria.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They said they slept on inch-thick, bug-infested mats and flushed toilets with recycled bath water, eating only a piece of bread or a small can of corned beef hash once a day.

But two Americans captured in Congo while working for a presidential candidate are back home and in seemingly good spirits — though they are still awaiting blood tests to see if they contracted malaria.

Retired Orlando police Capt. Joseph Robinson, 47, and retired U.S. Secret Service agent Kevin Billings, 49, spoke with reporters Thursday about their detention. They and Seth Taylor, of San Diego, were among 32 foreigners whom Congolese officials accused of planning a coup ahead of national elections.

Deny plotting overthrow
Robinson and Billings deny they were plotting a coup. They said they and Taylor were working for Orlando-based AQMI Strategy Corp. to provide security and strategy consulting for a presidential candidate.

They were captured May 19 and released Saturday. They returned to the U.S. on Monday.

Billings and Robinson said they initially feared for their lives in Congo, but later came to believe the Congolese government was simply trying to intimidate their candidate, Dr. Oscar Kashala, ahead of scheduled July 30 elections.

“I don’t think either one of us are the types to think that we’re going to lay down and die,” Robinson said.

To pass the time the men sang theme songs from “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and a boisterous rendition of “If You’re Happy And You Know It.”

“By the time we got to ‘stomp your feet’ we had a whole bunch of security guards with AK-47s peeking around the corner,” Robinson said.

Robinson and Billings said they were headed home for a visit on May 18 when government officials removed them from an airplane, took their passports and told them a minor mix up would keep them in Congo until the next morning.

The next day, more than a dozen armed police and military personnel stormed the house they were staying in, taking them into custody.

The Congolese government said they were arrested with military items, but the men said they weren’t armed. Instead, they said they were told that the GPS units, laptop computers and hiking boots they carried were tools of insurgency.

Witnessed violence
The two said they were never harmed, but a South American arrested at the same time was nearly bludgeoned to death, and Nigerians in their holding cell were beaten in interrogation.

Congolese officials continued to insist Thursday that the men were planning to overthrow the government.

“All the mercenaries — the Nigerians, the Americans and the South Africans — admitted that they had been recruited to carry out a coup d’etat,” Congolese Information Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi said. “Now they’re saying they admitted this because they were beaten, and that is false.”

Despite the ordeal, both men said they would return to Congo if they hadn’t been banned following their release.

“I’d like to go to Switzerland or something like that,” Robinson joked.

Nearly 18,000 U.N. troops are on the ground trying to ensure the Congo elections are peaceful.