A vast country with immense economic resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has been at the centre of what could be termed Africa's world war. This has left it in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. The five-year conflict pitted government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, people in the east of the country remain in terror of marauding militia and the army.
The war claimed an estimated three million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. It has been called possibly the worst emergency to unfold in Africa in recent decades.
The war had an economic as well as a political side. Fighting was fuelled by the country's vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder natural resources.
The history of DR Congo has been one of civil war and corruption. After independence in 1960, the country immediately faced an army mutiny and an attempt at secession by its mineral-rich province of Katanga.
A year later, its prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was seized and killed by troops loyal to army chief Joseph Mobutu.
In 1965 Mobutu seized power, later renaming the country Zaire and himself Mobutu Sese Seko. He turned Zaire into a springboard for operations against Soviet-backed Angola and thereby ensured US backing. But he also made Zaire synonymous with corruption.
After the Cold War, Zaire ceased to be of interest to the US. Thus, when in 1997 neighbouring Rwanda invaded it to flush out extremist Hutu militias, it gave a boost to the anti-Mobutu rebels, who quickly captured the capital, Kinshasa, installed Laurent Kabila as president and renamed the country DR Congo.
Nonetheless, DR Congo's troubles continued. A rift between Mr Kabila and his former allies sparked a new rebellion, backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe took Kabila's side, turning the country into a vast battleground.
Coup attempts and sporadic violence heralded renewed fighting in the eastern part of the country in 2008. Rwandan Hutu militias clashed with government forces in April, displacing thousands of civilians.
Another militia under rebel General Laurent Nkunda had signed a peace deal with the government in January, but clashes broke out again in August. Gen Nkunda's forces advanced on government bases and the provincial capital Goma in the autumn, causing civilians and troops to flee while UN peacekeepers tried to hold the line alongside the remaining government forces.
In an attempt to bring the situation under control, the government in January 2009 invited in troops from Rwanda to help mount a joint operation against the Rwandan rebel Hutu militias active in eastern DR Congo.
Rwanda arrested the Hutu militias' main rival, Gen Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi hitherto seen as its main ally in the area.
However, during 2009 eastern areas remained beset by violence.
- Full name: Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Population: 66 million (UN, 2009)
- Capital: Kinshasa
- Area: 2.34 million sq km (905,354 sq miles)
- Major languages: French, Lingala, Kiswahili, Kikongo, Tshiluba
- Major religions: Christianity, Islam
- Life expectancy: 46 years (men), 49 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Congolese franc = 100 centimes
- Main exports: Diamonds, copper, coffee, cobalt, crude oil
- GNI per capita: US $150 (World Bank, 2008)
- Internet domain: .cd
- International dialling code: +243
President: Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila became Congo's president when his father Laurent was assassinated in 2001. He gained a mandate through the ballot box to rule the vast country as its elected leader in an election in 2006.
The historic presidential election was intended to bring a new era of stability after years of war, dictatorship and chaos. The vote was generally praised by international monitors.
Mr Kabila has enjoyed the clear support of western governments such as the US and France, regional allies such as South Africa and Angola and businessmen and mining magnates who have signed multi-million dollar deals under his rule.
He is a former guerrilla fighter who participated in nearly a decade of war that ravaged the country.
He fought alongside his father in a military campaign from the east that toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 after more than 20 years as the despotic, whimsical and corrupt leader of the nation he had renamed Zaire.
But when Laurent Kabila was killed by a bodyguard in 2001, his soft-spoken, publicity-shy son, who received military training in China, was thrust into the political limelight and installed as the world's youngest head of state.
He swapped his military fatigues for elegant business suits, but - in contrast to his chubby, jovial and temperamental father - remained a reserved figure.
Mr Kabila has promised to rule by consensus to try to heal the still raw scars of Congo's many conflicts.
Though revered in the Swahili-speaking east, where he was widely credited with helping to end Congo's 1998-2003 war, he is less liked in the west.
Joseph Kabila is the eldest of 10 children fathered by Laurent Kabila. He spent much of his early life in East Africa, where his dissident father lived in exile.