But ever since it broke free from Belgium in June 1960, greedy warlords and equally covetous neighbours have prevented the second largest of Africa's nations from exploiting its natural wealth to establish a strong nation-state.

Political turmoil engulfed the DR Congo just one month after independence when a section of the army mutinied and declared the secession of the resource-rich southern province of Katanga.

The separatists' ringleader was Moise Tshombe, but the breakaway was engineered in Brussels whose government and mining companies feared the fiery anti-colonial line of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.

In a bid to staunch the break-up of the nascent state, Lumumba secured the efforts of a UN peacekeeping force. But its work was undermined by Belgium and an increasingly frustrated Lumumba was forced to turn to the Soviet Union for assistance.

USA behind killing

His actions put him at odds with the country's president, Joseph Kasavubu, and in July 1960 - just 67 days after he became premier - Lumumba was dismissed from his post.

The new alliance with Moscow also set alarm bells ringing in Washington with the result that by February 1961, Lumumba would be dead, executed after being delivered into the hands of his Katangan enemies by the US and Belgian governments.

President Joseph Kabila has made
the search for peace a priority

By this time, army strongman Joseph Mobutu, a man instrumental in the plan to eliminate Lumumba, had become the effective power broker in Kinshasa. He quickly brought Katanga back into the fold and in 1971 changed the country's name to Zaire and his own to Mobuto Sese Seko.

President Mobuto set about turning his country into a base for anti-communist operations against neighbouring Angola. Money flowed in from the US, much of it going into the pockets of the military junta.

Mobuto ruled with an iron fist. But years of chronic economic mismanagement took their toll. In 1991, riots by unpaid soldiers forced the president to loosen his hold on power, an event that would prove the beginning of the end for the African strongman.

Mobuto's rule weakens

In 1993, Mobuto saw the creation of a rival government. A year later he was left with no option but to appoint political rival Kengo Wa Dondo as prime minister.

In 1997, while Mobuto was abroad for treatment, Tutsi rebels - buoyed by the invasion of Tutsis from neighbouring Rwanda to flush out fleeing enemy Hutus - grabbed the opportunity to seize power.

They renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo and installed Laurent-Desire Kabila as president.

Kabila inherited a cauldron of simmering ethnic and power tensions. Barely a year into his tenure, rebels rose up against his rule with the backing of Uganda and Rwanda. Their involvement provoked Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola to intervene militarily to defend Kabila.

The country is one of Africa's
largest in terms of land mass

Since then, the UN believes that 2.5 million people have directly or indirectly lost their lives in conflict caused by a struggle to control the country's gold, diamonds, timber and coltan resources.

In 1999, Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) rebels supported by Uganda and Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) fighters backed by Rwanda agreed a peace treaty, but the fighting continued.

The violence carried on even after the deployment in 2000 of a UN peacekeeping force to bolster the ceasefire, claiming the life of Kabila himself in 2001 at the hands of a personal minder.

Kabila's assassination paved the way for his son, Joseph, to succeed him. Establishing peace and security was the young president's first priority, and indeed, the key to his survival.

Peace moves

In a series of separate peace treaties with both Rwanda and Uganda and the rebel groups, Kabila won agreement for the withdrawal of all rebel forces in return for their accommodation in a new interim government.

Under a new constitution signed in 2003, elections will take place in 2005 until which time the interim government will hold power. Steps have been taken to unify government and rebel forces into a national army.

UN peacekeepers are attempting
to stem fresh violence in the east 

Nevertheless, fighting has continued in the east of the country. It has been blamed on local militias taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the departure of Ugandan and Rwandan forces.

The violence prompted the UN in 2003 to authorise the deployment of a European, followed by a multi-national, peacekeeping force.

The UN mission has had limited success in containing the violence. In March 2004, a coup attempt was put down in the capital Kinshasa, to be followed three months later by a fresh outbreak of clashes in the east.

The government has pointed the finger at Rwanda's continued support of rebels for the latest violence.