UN: Militia groups to down arms ahead of DRC elections

Three main militia groups in a strife-torn eastern province have agreed to lay down their arms ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) historic elections this weekend, the United Nations said on Thursday, offering a glimmer of hope on the same day that violence at a campaign rally underlined tensions in this vast nation.

Sunday’s elections were the DRC’s first multiparty balloting for a head of state since independence in 1960, and the first vote since a series of civil wars between 1996 and 2002 that drew in several of its neighbours. Voters will replace a transitional president and Parliament that have led the country since a 2002 peace agreement that ended fighting in most of the country, though not in the east.

The violence on Thursday followed a fire of undetermined origin at a camp for militiamen attached to a main Congolese presidential candidate, who was holding a campaign rally at a stadium elsewhere in Kinshasa. There appeared to be no serious injuries, though most of the shacks that made up the camp were destroyed.

Gunfire broke out outside the stadium when word reached the crowd there of the fire at the camp, where militiamen lived with their families.
Reporters saw at least six people wounded at the stadium, and said police were firing tear gas and that a fire had broken out at a church near the stadium.

Candidate and former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was just approaching the stadium when the melee erupted, and it was unclear whether the rally would go ahead. Thousands of people had marched from Kinshasa’s airport for the rally.

In announcing eastern militiamen were handing over their arms, Kemal Saiki, a spokesperson for the 17 600-troop peacekeeping force in the DRC, said: “Anything that contributes to peace in Congo is good news.”

But Saiki cautioned that other armed groups still exist in the eastern DRC—the site of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises despite the official end to war in 2002.

General Mbuayama Nsiona, the commander in charge of army operations in Ituri, said the three eastern militia groups that have agreed to disarm included one led by Peter Karim, whose agreement had been previously announced.

Karim’s militia was accused of capturing and later releasing seven Nepalese peacekeepers in May and is believed to include thousands of fighters. Army officials had said Karim will become a colonel in the army under the deal that saw him disarm.

“We are doing all we can for the vote to pass peacefully. The agreements with these militias will allow people to vote en masse on Sunday,” Nsiona said.

But Anneke van Woudenberg, of Human Rights Watch, who was in Bunia on Thursday morning, said her group is “very concerned” at such dealmaking. “This will not bring peace to Ituri,” she said. “It sends a signal that if you want to become a colonel, you should pick up your gun and kill people.”

Nsiona said about 500 men led by Cobra Matate also are laying down arms, as are members of the Congolese Revolutionary Movement, a coalition formed in December under Mathieu Ngudjolo and accused of most of the recent attacks. Nsiona said it is unclear how many people are in the coalition now, after about 3 500 were disarmed over the past month.

On Thursday morning, Nsiona said Ngudjolo was just outside Bunia with 250 militiamen preparing to hand over their arms, but that negotiations on details were still being worked out. He said it was risky to allow the militiamen so close to Bunia, but believed they were negotiating in good faith.

UN spokesperson Saiki cautioned that other armed groups still exist in the eastern DRC. The UN and Congolese forces have been trying to quell violence in the east that aid groups say contribute the needless deaths of about 1 000 civilians each day, most through strife-related disease or hunger.

Thousands of rebel and militia fighters have joined the military under a post-war, transitional administration led by President Joseph Kabila, but unknown numbers still fight in the countryside of the vast Central African nation. And the army has been accused of preying on civilians, in part because it is made up of so many former militiamen whose discipline is low and whose loyalties are suspect.

The UN said on Wednesday that political violence and human rights abuses increased ahead of the watershed vote, and that government security forces were responsible for most of the violations. The UN report covered January to June this year.

Kabila earlier acknowledged abuses by his security services, but blamed them on rogue elements and vowed any alleged crimes would be prosecuted.

The official, month-long campaign before the elections began after the report’s findings and there was no immediate word on the number of violations during this period, which has already seen 23 people killed in political violence. Campaigning is to end on Friday afternoon.

Kabila is considered the front-runner, but no candidate in the field of 33 is expected to win the majority needed to avoid a run-off. A run-off election between the top two candidates would be held within weeks of the initial ballot’s results if the first round does not yield a clear winner.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Anjan Sundaram in Bunia and Michelle Faul and Jerome Delay in Kinshasa contributed to this report

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