Belgium’s King Albert II flew into Kinshasa Monday ahead of ceremonies to mark 50 years of independence in its former central African colony, the first Belgian royal to visit in a quarter century.
Smiling in a dark blue suit, accompanied by Queen Paola, the king was met by Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito as the Belgian Air Force jet touched down in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo at around 4:45 pm (1545 GMT).
Travelling with outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme, King Albert was to head to the national palace for talks with President Joseph Kabila.
The Belgian king will join leaders including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and South African President Jacob Zuma for the anniversary celebrations in Kinshasa on Wednesday.
King Albert’s trip confirms a warming of ties after a Belgian minister’s remarks about corruption in the former Zaire caused relations to be broken off last year.
The four-day visit — during which he will also visit a hospital, a school and a shipyard — has been kept deliberately low-key to minimise the risk of a diplomatic upset, with neither scheduled to speak in public.
“This event is above all about the Congolese celebrating their independence,” said a government source in Brussels.
Although as head of the Belgian armed forces he has the rank of vice-admiral, Albert II will attend Wednesday’s military parade in Kinshasa in civilian dress.
The trip was overshadowed however when the sons of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba said they would seek war crimes charges against 12 Belgians they suspect of involvement in their father’s assassination in 1961.
Rights groups in Belgium have also criticised the king’s visit in the light of the killing last month of Congolese rights activist Floribert Chebeya, found dead the morning after heading to a meeting with the national police chief.
The Congolese ambassador to Brussels dismissed the debate as “an insult,” saying: “In Africa, when you are invited to a party, you should feel honoured.”