KINSHASA, June 7 (Reuters) - The CIA's top agent in Congo had been in Kinshasa just three months when he was asked to back a coup that launched the newly independent state into decades of war, dictatorship and chaos.
Larry Devlin, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's newly appointed chief of station, was approached in September 1960 by Joseph-Desire Mobutu, the young head of Congo's army, with a plan to overthrow prime minister Patrice Lumumba.
"He turned to me and said, 'But we will do this only if the United States government will recognise the temporary government which will be put in power'," Devlin told Reuters by telephone from his home in Virginia.
"Although I had no authority to make such an agreement, I finally just said yes," said the former CIA officer, who two months ago published his memoirs of his seven-year posting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The coup, months after Congo won independence from Belgium, went ahead. Lumumba, suspicious to Washington for his close ties to Moscow, was placed under house arrest and later murdered.
Mobutu, later to become Mobutu Sese Seko, consolidated power in a second coup five years later and went on to build a regime characterised by theft and corruption on an unprecedented scale.
The vast central African country, long known under Mobutu as Zaire, would not hold democratic polls again for another 46 years, and only after a 1998-2003 war killed an estimated four million people.
But Devlin remains unapologetic.
"Chief of Station, Congo", his account of his stint in Kinshasa, then called Leopoldville, is an effort to finally set the record straight following years of rumours and accusations.
"NO HAND IN ASSASSINATION"
Despite speculation over his involvement, Devlin said he played no role in Lumumba's death, though he get the order from Washington to carry out the assassination.
"I did receive instructions," he said. "I was told I was to act in this way on the instructions of the president of the United States."
Lumumba by then had been deposed as prime minister, but the U.S. feared his continued political influence. Devlin said he decided not to follow the order and instead stalled for time.
"I felt this would eventually be settled by the Congolese themselves. And it was, with the help of the Belgians."
In January 1961, Lumumba escaped from house arrest only to be recaptured, beaten, and murdered by soldiers under Mobutu's command with the assistance of Belgian officers.
Following historic elections last year that were meant to draw a line under the kleptocracy of the Mobutu years and the devastating conflict that grew out of the void he left, many now hope Congo will turn the page on its troubled past.
Devlin is not so optimistic.
The new prime minister, Antoine Gizenga, 81, was Lumumba's deputy in 1960 and is described by Devlin as "a man of very limited capacity". He criticised President Joseph Kabila, 36, who won elections last year, as "very young and inexperienced".
Congo is less developed today than at independence, with few paved roads, no electricity in the interior, and an economy in ruins. But Devlin rejects suggestions U.S. meddling is to blame.
"If you add up the amount of money the United States put into the Congo, I wonder what would have happened if it had not done so," he said.
"I don't think the United States has anything for which to be ashamed. Nor do I think I have anything to be ashamed of on that point."
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