/ 7 November 2008

Tutsi rebels in DRC accused of murdering civilians

Tutsi rebels in eastern Congo have been accused of summarily killing civilians as they seized a town that had been the stronghold of Hutu militias, and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

After two days of fighting, scores of bodies lay in the streets and homes of Kiwanja, a town adjacent to Rutshuru, which was seized by the Tutsi renegade general Laurent Nkunda last week.

Residents claimed his forces shot unarmed civilians after accusing them of supporting Hutu militias.

As calm returned to Kiwanja on Thursday, Nkunda’s forces seized at least two other villages in the area, Nyanzale and Kikuku.

The UN said it was moving armoured vehicles and its forces into the area in an attempt to protect civilians and prevent further advances by the Tutsi rebels.

Most of Kiwanja’s 35 000 residents were driven out of the town and into Rutshuru, where they were left to fend for themselves during the night in driving rain. Women and children, dragging goats and bundles of clothing, straggled in a line that stretched for kilometres. Many camped out at the town’s stadium, without food or water.

”The Tutsis came and ordered us to leave,” said Jean Bakenda. ”They shot people who refused to go or who they said were against them. They shot one man right in front of me and told me they would shoot me if I didn’t run to Rutshuru straight away. I only had time to grab my wife and children and nothing else.”

One house in Kiwanja contained the bodies of five men.

Another resident, Simo Bramporiki, said his wife and child were shot dead. ”They knocked on the doors. When the people opened, they killed them with their guns,” he said.

Nkunda denied that his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) forces had killed civilians, saying the dead were Hutu fighters in civilian clothes.

The UN peacekeeping mission, which did not intervene from its nearby base despite its mandate to protect civilians, said it was investigating the killings.

The fighting in Kiwanja appears to have been provoked by an assault by a regional traditional militia, the Mai Mai, and Rwandan Hutu extremists, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) who fled their own country after carrying out the 1994 genocide. The Congolese government’s army has often fought in league with the Hutu extremists.

Kiwanja was a stronghold of Hutu support after thousands moved there in recent years to escape fighting and armed gangs in rural areas. Many were reluctant to settle in Rutshuru, which is regarded locally as part of the ancient Tutsi kingdom and is therefore a target for Nkunda.

A ceasefire continued to hold around the region’s main town, Goma. The UN has described the defence of Goma as a ”red line” and on Thursday reiterated that it would use all the force at its disposal, including helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, to protect the town. UN peacekeepers were digging in to the north of Goma, just short of Nkunda’s lines.

Nkunda on Thursday renewed a threat to attack Goma if the government kept up what he said were attacks on his troops in order to provoke conflict and western intervention against him. ”My soldiers are only defending themselves from attacks,” he said. ”This is a treasonous government and if it does not negotiate with us then we will force it to negotiate.”

Adolphe Muzito, DRC’s prime minister, said his government was now ready to talk directly to Nkunda’s rebels, despite refusing to earlier in the week. ”The government is ready to listen to all the armed groups. I am ready to listen, to receive the grievances of other groups … including those of the CNDP,” Muzito said.

It was unclear, however, if that was a serious offer of talks, or political positioning ahead of a summit of regional leaders in Nairobi today that will focus on the conflict. DRDC’s President, Joseph Kabila, and the Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame, are expected to attend, along with the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. But Nkunda and the FDLR will not be there.

Rwanda is demanding that the DRC and the UN fulfil a commitment to disarm the Hutu extremists on its border who control about 40% of territory in the two Congolese provinces neighbouring Rwanda, North and South Kivu. The FDLR is committed to overthrowing the present Rwandan government and is raising a new generation of fighters imbued with the same hatred of Tutsis. – guardian.co.uk