DRC armed group lays down weapons

Nearly 4 000 members of one of the half-dozen armed bands operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) violence-ridden Ituri region have begun to lay down their arms in a move hailed as a breakthrough.

But the United Nations on Tuesday accused another group, which killed nine peacekeepers last month, of continuing to commit atrocities in the north-eastern region, despite the arrest of its leaders.

Benoit Molondo, an official of the National Demobilisation Commission (Conader), earlier said the Congolese People’s Armed Forces (FAPC) began handing in its weapons on Sunday at its base in Aru, in northern Ituri.

“This is the first time that a whole group has agreed to join the disarmament process,” he said. “It is a remarkable step forward and we hope it will motivate those who are still dithering.”

Molondo said more than 700 government troops have been deployed in Aru to recover the weapons and ensure the security of the disarmed militia, pending the next step in the process laid down by the national disarmament programme.

The demobilised FAPC troops will be taken to an official “transit site” at Mahagi, 100km away, where they will formally opt to join the government army; return to civilian life; or be dealt with at Aru itself.

FAPC secretary general Kaninda Nkole confirmed that the militia has disarmed in line with a pledge by Ituri’s warlords made in May last year at Kinshasa.

In December, five militia leaders, including the FAPC’s Jerome Kakwavu, were made brigadiers in the national army, but the violence in Ituri has worsened.

On February 25, nine Bangladeshi members of the UN peacekeeping forces in the region were killed in an ambush in an area controlled by the Nationalist Integrationist Front (FNI).

UN troops hit back, killing at least 50 militiamen, while FNI chief Floribert Ndjabu and two of his top aides were arrested in Kinshasa. The group’s military commander, Etienne Lona, surrendered to UN forces in Ituri.

But Mamadou Bah, spokesperson for the UN mission in the DRC (Monuc), said the FNI is continuing to “commit atrocities”, with attacks on seven villages about 100km north-east of the Ituri capital of Bunia at the weekend.

Fuel was looted and villagers were abducted, he said, without being able to give details.

Bah also said Monuc suspects the FNI of teaming up with the rival Union of Congolese Patriots.

“Monuc calls on all armed groups in Ituri, particularly the FNI, to lay down their arms immediately and join the demobilisation process under way,” he added.

Kinshasa has also announced stepped-up military efforts to end the violence, which is largely ethnically based, in the region rich in gold, uranium and oil.

The fighting sent more than 70 000 refugees fleeing to already crowded camps last week, increasing the threat of epidemics and crime.
It also risks causing a future food shortage, as the planting season for crops should now be starting, according to aid groups.

The government’s disarmament programme in Ituri began in September following the massacre of hundreds of civilians by militias representing the minority Hema and majority Lendu people.

It aims to disband 15 000 fighters held responsible for the deaths of more than 50 000 people and the displacement of half a million since 1999.

But this is only 10% of the estimated 150 000 guerrillas active throughout the DRC despite the end of the 1999-2003 war that drew in the forces of half a dozen other African states, each of which backed different groups.

A UN observer in Kinshasa said the latest violence in Ituri has angered international aid organisations and donors, which have demanded action.

The World Bank has provided $200-million to fund the demobilisation programme, which has so far been confined to Ituri and had only limited success.

The observer described the latest developments as “very positive”, but it remains to be seen if they will persuade other armed groups to follow suit.—Sapa-AP