Congo Watch: June 2006

Friday, June 30, 2006

As DR of Congo election campaign begins, UN Council extends expanded force

Saying that armed groups in eastern DRC still threaten elections in the vast central African nation where political campaigns officially kicked off today, the UN Security Council today decided to extend until 30 Sep its authorization for a strengthened peacekeeping force in the country.

The Council, through a unanimously adopted resolution, stressed the temporary nature of the increase in military and police strength of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC), and once again called on all Congolese institutions and parties to ensure that the elections are free, fair, peaceful and timely.

The poll, slated for 30 July, is the largest and most expensive electoral assistance operation the UN has ever undertaken, and the Security Council in October 2005 authorized an increase of MONUC military personnel by 300 staff. - UN News Centre 30 June 2006.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

DRC: An Update by UN's Ross Mountain

Committee on Conscience publishes an update on the humanitarian situation in DR of Congo.

[via Voices on genocide prevention, with thanks]

Monday, June 26, 2006

Congo militia threaten to execute UN peacekeepers

June 26, 2006 Reuters report from Kinshasa by David Lewis:

Congolese militia linked to gunmen holding seven Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers hostage on Monday threatened to order their execution after clashes last week.

But some U.N. sources questioned whether the group of gunmen holding the peacekeepers would take orders from the militia issuing the threat.

The men were taken hostage last month during clashes between the U.N. and gunmen, highlighting the insecurity in eastern Congo one month before historic elections are due to be held.

Militiamen loyal to Ituri warlord Peter Karim have issued a range of demands, including ransoms and the release of fellow militia fighters being held by the government, but the U.N. has called for the unconditional release of their men.

The Revolutionary Movement of Congo (MRC), a loose coalition of gunmen in the lawless northeastern district, issued the execution threat on Monday following clashes between government forces and militiamen late last week.

"If there is another such attack, the ... MRC will feel obliged to order the pure and simple execution of these hostages," the MRC said in a statement.

The MRC, which was set up in neighbouring Uganda last year and brought together various ethnic groups, said the clashes took place when the U.N. and government forces tried to rescue the hostages.

ETHNIC VIOLENCE

But a U.N. spokesman denied any operation to rescue the hostages had taken place and said he understood it was the militia who had attacked the Congolese government positions and no U.N. peacekeepers were involved.

"Negotiations (to free the hostages) are ongoing," Major Hans-Jakob Reichen, spokesman for U.N. forces in eastern Congo, said on Monday.

"During this period U.N. forces will not conduct actions that could endanger the success of these negotiations. (But) this time of negotiations can't be considered a time of impunity," he added.

Ituri has been a bloody corner of Congo where ethnic violence and clashes between militia groups vying for control of mines and taxation have killed 60,000 people since 1999.

Long accused of not doing enough to protect civilians and prompted by the killing of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers, the U.N. tried to crack down on the militia groups last year, launching joint operations with government forces.

Thousands of gunmen signed up to a disarmament programme but abuses by government forces sent to Ituri and the failure to offer former fighters new opportunities has allowed militia numbers to swell again.

Both Hema and Lendu ethnic fighters joined the MRC but alliances in Ituri are fluid and some U.N. sources questioned whether Karim's men would obey orders from the MRC.

Ituri is just one of several parts of eastern Congo where violence continues despite three years of official peace and the presence of the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping mission.

The July 30th presidential and parliamentary polls are meant to draw a line under Congo's 1998-2003 war, which sucked in six neighbouring countries and has killed four million people, mostly from hunger and disease.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

AK-47s Known as 'Credit Cards' in Lawless East

Reuters report via CFD - 22 June 2006 by David Lewis BUNIA, Congo:

Some fight in flip-flops, others hope potions will turn their enemy's bullets into water and most take little time to aim, trusting in the theory: "He who makes most noise wins."

But the government soldiers, militia fighters and bush bandits in eastern Congo all have one thing in common -- an AK-47 assault rifle.

"At $20 to $50 each, it's pretty easy to get your hands on an AK out here," explains a source close to the militia groups in Democratic Republic of Congo's lawless Ituri district.

"There is no shortage of weapons, there are plenty of them," the source added. "Of course ammunition is needed, but that comes in from Uganda easily."

Ituri is a particularly bloody corner of Congo, a mineral-rich but shattered country where four million people have been killed, mostly from war-related hunger and disease, since 1998.

Far removed from central government authority, Ituri has long porous borders with countries coveting its natural resources and a thinly stretched body of United Nations peacekeepers. The region highlights the challenges of controlling the flow of arms around Africa's Great Lakes.

Fighting between ethnic militias exploded in Bunia, Ituri's main town, in 2003 and European soldiers were dispatched to restore order after U.N. peacekeepers failed to prevent hundreds of civilians from being killed.

As Congo prepares for elections this year, thousands of militia fighters have signed up for disarmament programs, in theory swapping guns for school, training and jobs as civilians.

U.N. peacekeepers ceremonially burned stacks of weapons, while serviceable guns seized off militia were given to the new army. An arms embargo is meant to cut off fresh supplies.

'CONGOLESE CREDIT CARD'

But, frustrated with the lack of opportunities in their new lives, angry at the excesses of poorly paid government soldiers and loath to stop looting civilians and plundering gold mines, many in Ituri have found it easy to take up arms again.

"There are still weapons that are coming in and this will continue so long as there are people who are willing to pay for them," said Major Hans-Jakob Reichen, spokesman for the U.N. forces in eastern Congo.

Sanctions have been imposed on those breaking the arms embargo. U.N. helicopters fly at night, using thermal imaging to try and catch smugglers. And peacekeepers in speedboats patrol hundreds of miles of lakes separating Congo and its neighbors.

But militia ranks have swollen in recent months and, as a reminder of their strength, they are holding seven U.N. peacekeepers hostage following a gun battle last month.

Reichen says the United Nations can act as a deterrent but can only do so much to rid the nation of guns.

"It is a huge task that the U.N. will not be able to fulfill until the authority of the state is imposed."

Ituri is a microcosm of the Congo where, analysts say, the wealth in gold, timber, diamonds and other minerals needed by expanding Western economies has been plundered by local and foreign armed groups during years of chaos and instability.

During Congo's two wars, the last of which officially ended in 2003, officials handed out weapons to civilians, telling them to use them to defend their ethnic groups from attacks by rivals.

Despite the billions invested in peacekeeping and the determination of the international community to hold Congo's first free elections in over 40 years in July, vast swathes of the country remain outside the government's control.

And thousands of gunmen continue to roam the lawless east armed with their AK-47s -- known to some as the "Congolese credit card" -- harassing and killing civilians.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

DRC: New disarmament deadline, amnesty offer for militiamen

IRIN report June 15, 2006:

Militia active in Ituri District in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have until 30 June to disarm, according to an ultimatum by the national army and the United Nations Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC.

The army has deployed Brig-Gen Mbuyamba Nsiona from the capital, Kinshasa, to Ituri to take charge of the operation, which is aimed at securing the district ahead of general elections set for 30 July. Speaking in Bunia, the main town in the district, Nsiona said on Thursday that after the expiry of the deadline, militiamen who refuse to surrender would be forcibly disarmed.

Two disarmament sites would be opened from 19 June for those who wish to surrender: one at Aveba, 70km north of Bunia, and one at Kpandroma, 120km north of Bunia. All militia who give themselves up before the deadline would receive amnesty from the government, he said. Upon disarmament, they would receive certificates to distinguish them from militia who had not surrendered.

"There will be no victimisation," Nsiona said, adding that government soldiers who prevent or discourage militia from disarming would be punished.

The DRC's National Commission of Disarmament estimates that out of 16,300 militiamen that had been identified in Ituri, at least 4,000 had defied an earlier disarmament deadline - 30 April - issued by MONUC. A majority of those who are yet to disarm are loyal to a new alliance of several militia groups, the Mouvement révolutionnaires Congolais (MRC).

On Wednesday, at least 121 militiamen gave up their weapons under a joint disarmament operation between MONUC and the National Commission for Disarmament. The militia surrendered in Katoni village, 15km south of Bunia. Katoni is also is home to at least 18,000 people who have been displaced by fighting, said Idrissa Conteh, an information officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Among the surrendered weapons were 47 AK-47 rifles; 16,000 rounds of ammunition; and three bombs, a source at the disarmament commission said.

"Fifty other militias also voluntarily surrendered their weapons to the army," Brig-Gen Nsiona said. Among the militia who surrendered were 31 combatants from Tcheyi, 100km south of Bunia, where the army is fighting the MRC.

MONUC had identified five child soldiers in Tcheyi. "They were spies for the militias," Nsiona said.

A Congolese army captain who requested anonymity said they had information that there were 100 other militiamen who were willing to surrender, "but they are afraid of certain FARDC [Congolese national army] forces on the ground."

Friday, June 02, 2006

Bush for talks with Congo on Sudan conflict

United States president George Bush will meet with the president of the Republic of Congo and head of the 53-nation African Union, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, at the White House on Monday.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the two leaders would discuss the Darfur conflict in Sudan.

The two presidents also will discuss ways to strengthen democracy and improve the lives of the Congolese people, said Snow. - Sapa-AP via Cape Argus June 2, 2006.