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GOMA, DR Congo, May 16 2013 (IPS) - The “blind and unrestricted” reintegration of M23 deserters into the Congolese army could harm the country, according to Thomas d’Aquin Mwiti, the chair of the North Kivu civil society platform, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to Julien Paluku, governor of North Kivu province, 519 rebel deserters have been reintegrated into the Congolese army, known by its French acronym FARDC, since 2012.
Since Apr. 21, 87 M23 rebel fighters have defected to the FARDC. Deserters who give themselves up to the FARDC are immediately reintegrated into the army at Bweremana base, 50 kilometres from Goma.
But Mwiti told IPS that this “automatic reintegration (of fighters) is simply a rebel infiltration” of the FARDC.
“The government must first put in place a mechanism for the reintegration and monitoring of deserters who could, at any moment, rejoin the rebellion,” he said.
One M23 defector, Colonel Nzala Ngomo, was reinstated into the national army on May 1. Ngomo had been the commander of the 41st commando battalion of FARDC when he joined M23 after Goma fell to the rebel group in November 2012. He surrendered to the FARDC in April.
M23, named after a peace agreement signed on Mar. 23, 2009 between leaders of a former rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, and the DRC government, started their recent insurgency in April 2012.
It culminated with their occupation of Goma, the second-largest city in DRC, in November 2012. The rebels withdrew from a week-long occupation of the town after Uganda brokered an agreement with M23 and the DRC government. However, the insurgent group has experienced a number of defections recently.
Juvénal Munubo, a legislator from Walikale, North Kivu, and a member of the National Assembly’s Committee for Defence and Security, agreed with Mwiti that the direct absorption of defectors into the Congolese army was risky.
“It’s unwise to reintegrate these deserters into the FARDC without… knowing their real motivation. They must first pass through a transit centre for re-education,” Munubo told IPS.
In contrast, former M23 combatants who surrender to MONUSCO – the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC – are enrolled in its Disarmament, Demobilisation, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement programme, which is run in collaboration with the security and intelligence services of DRC.
Since April, 87 combatants from M23, including 12 officers, have surrendered at bases belonging to MONUSCO in Rutshuru Territory, and in Nyiragongo, both of which are north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
MONUSCO’s military spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Félix Prosper Basse, told Radio Okapi – the U.N. radio station – that the number of rebel defections has been growing.
But Mwiti belongs to a section of civil society that believes M23 deserters are trying to avoid international prosecution after being named and accused in U.N. reports of atrocities and human rights violations against civilians.
“On this issue, we will insist on the rigorous application of military justice against those named in the reports,” said Mwiti.
However, the Youth League of Rutshuru, a collective of 24 associations fighting against the recruitment of idle youth into armed groups, has asked the government to unconditionally reintegrate the rebels into the FARDC to “put an end to the war.”
According to Bienvenu Mazirane, president of the umbrella group, many M23 combatants are fearful of fighting the new U.N. intervention brigade, which was formed to neutralise all armed groups in the east of the country.
On Mar. 28, the U.N. Security Council resolved to move its presence in the DRC from a stabilisation and peacekeeping force to an intervention force with a mandate to neutralise some 40 armed groups operating in the country, with effect from early May.
“They were willing to fight against the FARDC, but not against the MONUSCO brigade,” Mazirane told IPS.
Despite the defections from its ranks, M23 is determined to fight the U.N. intervention force.
“As the government in Kinshasa refuses to sign a ceasefire with M23, this brigade means the war can only be ended with victory for (either) the government or M23,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama, military spokesperson for the rebel movement.
Kazarama told IPS that the rebellion could count on 4,500 men to “sacrifice blood” to fight for the country’s liberation, and downplayed the recent desertions.
Nonetheless, the rebel group is doing all that it can to prevent its fighters from deserting and surrendering to MONUSCO. M23 has set up an observation post just 30 metres from the U.N. base in Kiwanja, northeast of Goma in North Kivu province. And on Apr. 28, the rebels fired on two M23 soldiers who handed themselves over with their weapons to MONUSCO at the Kiwanja base.
“But they succeeded in entering the MONUSCO base,” said Mazirane.
Paluku welcomed the defections, describing the deserters as “lost children who have returned to the fold.” The governor of North Kivu called on other rebels to follow their example.
The national authorities have not commented on the matter, and simply acknowledged the defections.
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