Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

DR CONGO: With Rebel Leader&#39s Indictment, a Tentative Step to Accountability

Michael Deibert

JOHANNESBURG, May 1 2008 (IPS) - The indictment against a militia leader whose alleged abuses span the Democratic Republic of Congo&#39s war-ravaged east was finally made public at the end of April, almost two years after being delivered under seal to war crimes prosecutors.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) alleges that Bosco Ntaganda "committed war crimes of enlistment and conscription of children under the age of 15", using the children "to participate actively in hostilities in Ituri, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from July 2002 until December 2003."

Formerly the chief of military operations for the Union des Patriotes Congolais (Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC), Ntaganda now serves as military chief of staff of the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP).

The warrant was made being made public now because it would "not endanger the witnesses of the DRC cases" at the present moment, the ICC said in a statement.

The conflict in the DRC&#39s north-eastern Ituri region, lasting from 1999 until 2007, initially involved the Lendu, a group made up principally of farmers who migrated from Sudan centuries ago, and the Hema: more recent arrivals in the area.

Fighting soon spread, however, to encompass other ethnic groups such as the Ngiti, generally perceived as loyal to the Lendu, and the Gegere, seen as supporting the Hema. The bloodshed claimed at least 60,000 lives (see POLITICS-DRC: Cautious Calm Settles Over War-Scarred Ituri Region).

Militias such as the Forces de Résistance Patriotique d&#39Ituri (Patriotic Resistance Forces of Ituri, or FRPI) and the Front Nationaliste et Intégrationniste (Nationalist and Integrationist Front, FNI) fought on one side, claiming to defend the Lendu and Ngiti – while the UPC took up the banner of Hema supremacy.

Human rights activists welcomed the news of Ntaganda&#39s indictment.

"Ntaganda&#39s track record from Ituri is atrocious," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at the Africa division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The UPC were an armed group that slaughtered civilians on an ethnic basis and Ntaganda was very much in the thick of that."

Rights groups believe that Ntaganda is also culpable for crimes not dealt with in the ICC indictment.

He is alleged to have served as the overall military commander for the UPC attack on the town of Songolo in August 2002. An estimated 1,500 UPC and allied combatants swept into the village, killing at least 140 people – most of them Ngiti civilians – with firearms, machetes and spears.

The former UPC leader is also thought to have taken a lead role in the November 2002 siege of the gold-mining town of Mongbwalu. During the six-day battle, UPC cadres and allied forces from the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (Movement for the Liberation of Congo) of Jean-Pierre Bemba killed at least 200 people in and around the village, including Abbé Boniface Bwanalonga – an Ngiti priest affiliated with Mongbwalu parish. Bemba would later unsuccessfully run for the Congolese presidency in 2006.

The unsealing of the indictment against Ntaganda may present the rebel&#39s new allies in the CNDP with a difficult choice as to his future. This group operates in the mountainous province of North Kivu, directly south of the Ituri region where Ntaganda&#39s UPC crimes are alleged to have taken place.

Led by Laurent Nkunda, a renegade general and ethnic Tutsi who claims to be defending the rights of Tutsis in the province, the CNDP has engaged in brutal fighting in the region over the last two years. Enemies of the faction run the gamut from army forces loyal to President Joseph Kabila and local paramilitaries such as the Patriotes Résistents Congolais (Congolese Resistance Patriots), to the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda): a group with its roots in Rwanda&#39s 1994 genocide, comprised mainly of ethnic Hutus with links to the former genocidaires.

A peace deal signed in January provides the CNDP and other signatories with a general amnesty for "acts of war", but does not cover war crimes and crimes against humanity. By some interpretations this might oblige Nkunda, who was the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by the Congolese government for war crimes, to hand Ntaganda over to the ICC.

Sporadic clashes continue in North Kivu despite the peace agreement, with all sides in the conflict accused of gross human rights abuses. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that since 2003, some 800,000 people have been displaced by fighting in North Kivu out of a population of 4.2 million, or roughly one in five.

"They&#39re like chameleons," Van Woudenberg asserts of the architects of eastern Congo&#39s turmoil. "They change colours, they change groups, but they continue with their brutal and oppressive ways."

Attempts to reach CNDP representatives for comment proved unsuccessful.

The arrest warrant against Ntaganda, delivered Aug. 22, 2006, is the fourth issued by the ICC for crimes committed in the DRC.

Germain Katanga, a former leader of the FRPI, was arrested in October 2007 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A former FNI leader, Mathieu Ngudjolo, is also in custody.

Thomas Lubanga, former president of the UPC, now awaits trial on war crimes charges, while a fourth militia leader, the FNI&#39s Floribert Njabu, is currently in detention in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.

The indictments themselves have proved somewhat controversial, with some Lendu leaders claiming a double standard in having Lendu paramilitary heads charged with crimes against humanity – systematic atrocities – while Hema warlords have been charged only with war crimes. The latter are seen as less serious offences.

"It is clear that what they are charging is not correct; everyone can see it," said Sylvestre Sombo, political co-ordinator of the newly-minted FNI political party, when interviewed by IPS recently in the Ituri town of Bunia about previous indictments.

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