Militia attacks spread terror in DRC in run-up to polls

Militias are sowing terror in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ahead of its general elections in July, launching almost daily attacks against the overstretched DRC army, military spokespersons told Agence France-Presse this week.

“Hardly a day passes without a skirmish,” said Olivier Mputu, liaison officer of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) in the north-eastern region of Ituri.

“Militia fighters, in small, very mobile units, attack our isolated positions in the totally vain hope of regaining ground that they have lost for good,” he added.

Almost 200 000 people are estimated to have been driven from their villages in Ituri and are afraid to return home.

British-based aid agency Oxfam suspended operations in Ituri last month due to a lack of security.

Patrick Cammaert, commander of the eastern division of the United Nations force in DRC (Monuc) said his force was launching targeted military operations to limit the number of people displaced ahead of the general elections set for July 30.

Around 100 militia fighters have been killed in a month and a half of battles, according to a provisional army toll.

The army on Monday launched a fresh campaign to root out militias in Ituri near the Ugandan border. The UN estimates the number of these fighters at 2 000.

But the army is stretched, despite support from Monuc with its armoured vehicles and helicopters.
Monuc has 18 000 troops in the vast country, including 3 000 in Ituri, to boost the 8 000 FARDC force in the region.

The UN forces are determined that the unrest caused by the militias will not disrupt the election—due to be the country’s first democratic presidential and legislative elections in more than 40 years.

The polls, held under the terms of a 2003 transitional Constitution, aim to install a transitional government and end the cycles of ethnic violence that have plagued the country since the start of its 1998-2003 civil war.

More than 15 000 militias have disarmed under a demobilisation programme, but others have regrouped as the Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC), formed in the Ugandan capital Kampala in June 2005.

The MRC may be acting to “regain territory so it can negotiate posts in the army or deliberately maintain a state of instability to undermine the elections”, a UN observer in Ituri said.

A DRC army officer said the MRC was supported by Uganda.

Militias were attacking the army to try and reopen routes linking the DRC and Uganda, which the army had closed off, he said.

Some 60 000 people are estimated to have been killed since 1999 in armed clashes in Ituri, according to aid groups.

The UN’s Cammaert said DRC forces were stretched and atrocities were being committed against civilians, but he denied militia action in Ituri would disrupt the elections.

“The problem in Ituri is that FARDC is spread out into very vulnerable small groups. They should be in strong patrols to resist any attacks,” he told AFP.

“The elections will take place. We try to make sure that the [military] operations are limited before the elections, to limit the number of internally displaced people,” he said. He said that 25,7-million people had registered to vote.

DRC soldiers also face attack by Hutu militia fighters from neighbouring Rwanda.

“We support the FARDC in the operations against [the Hutu militias]. The [army’s] actions are limited, focused where atrocities against populations are committed,” Cammaert said.

But he acknowledged that civilians also faced the threat of attack from poorly paid and underfed army soldiers.

“There are many violations of FARDC soldiers against populations. That has to stop and the commanders of the units that misbehave must be punished,” he said.

“But the responsibility of the authorities is also engaged. When you don’t pay properly, when you send soldiers on the ground without any food, you create a recipe for human rights abuses.

“We’ll have troops tasked for the elections. We can’t be everywhere. And the Monuc can’t solve, with 18 000 soldiers, the problem of vast Congo.”—Sapa-AFP

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