Family of American caught up in Congo failed coup says their son went to Africa on vacation

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (AP) — The family of an American caught up in a failed coup attempt in Congo said their son was in Africa on vacation with family friends and had not previously engaged in political activism, according to a statement provided to The Associated Press.

Tyler Thompson, 21, was one of at least three Americans who were named by the Congolese army as being part of a failed effort to overthrow the government in Kinshasa in the early hours Sunday under eccentric, self-exiled leader Christian Malanga. The two other Americans allegedly involved were Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, and Malanga’s Utah-born son, Marcel, 21, who was arrested by Congolese forces.

“We are stunned and heartbroken by the videos we have seen from the coup attempt,” Thompson’s stepmother, Miranda Thompson, said in a direct message on the social media platform X. “We have no idea how he got wrapped up in this situation, which is completely out of character for him. We are certain he did not go to Africa with plans for political activism.”

Malanga, the alleged leader, was shot dead after resisting arrest, the Congolese army said. In all, six people were killed in the attack on the presidential palace and another on the residence of a close ally of President Felix Tshisekedi.

Although the Congolese government has not clarified whether Thompson was among those arrested or killed, a video circulating on social media shows him surrounded by Congolese soldiers with his hands clasped tightly and a frightened look on his bloodied face. He and Marcel Malanga are forced to their feet and soldiers tie their hands behind their backs.

Thompson had played high school football with Marcel Malanga in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Jordan and was the only former teammate to accept his invitation to travel to Congo, according to several other players who told the AP they had been invited.

Marcel Malanga had pitched the trip to many of his high school friends in the months leading up to the foiled coup attempt. Some said he had invited them on a family vacation, while others, including former football teammate Jaden Lalor, said he had pitched it as a service trip to build wells. Teammates recounted Marcel Malanga’s increasing desperation as friend after friend declined.

“He did call me to ask if I wanted to go to Africa for vacation, as well as a few of my other friends, but he did not offer to take more than a single one of us at a time,” said Luke Barbee, another former teammate who lived with Marcel Malanga last year. “He only asked so many of us because he kept getting denied until Tyler said yes to the trip.”

Barbee was shocked to learn of his friends’ involvement in the attack and said it seemed out of character for both young men.

Marcel Malanga had a strained relationship with his father, Lalor said, adding that he could have been easily pressured or manipulated into following his father’s plans.

“Marcel is a super respectful kid, rough around the edges, but not enough to go and murder people,” Lalor said. “I know they had to have been brainwashed or forced to do this because Tyler had never been one for conflict. He’s one of the most laid back or chill kids you would meet.”

Thompson’s stepmother said he was not politically engaged and was simply excited to see the world with his friend.

“He is a good kid, a hard worker and a respectful young man,” Miranda Thompson said of her stepson. “We’re so lost as to how he ended up in this mess.”

The U.S. State Department strongly discourages travel to Congo, warning of violent crime and civil unrest. Americans are specifically encouraged to avoid demonstrations that might result in arrest due to the U.S. government’s “extremely limited ability” to provide emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in many parts of the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the attack in a call with Tshisekedi on Wednesday and offered help from the U.S. with the investigation, according to a summary of the call.

The U.S. Embassy in Congo said Thursday that it was still waiting for the Congolese government to provide evidence that the arrested individuals were Americans before it could provide consular services to them.

The Congolese government has not given a date for when the suspects will appear in court.


Donati reported from Dakar, Senegal.

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