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Archive for Sunday, November 9, 2008

Congo rebel leader vows to keep fighting

Smoke rises from cooking fires Saturday in Kibati camp north of Goma, eastern Congo. More than 250,000 people have been forced from their homes since rebel leader Laurent Nkunda went on the offensive Aug. 28 and captured large swaths of eastern Congo as the army retreated. The conflict is fueled by ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda. Nkunda claims he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who participated in the genocide and then fled to Congo.

Smoke rises from cooking fires Saturday in Kibati camp north of Goma, eastern Congo. More than 250,000 people have been forced from their homes since rebel leader Laurent Nkunda went on the offensive Aug. 28 and captured large swaths of eastern Congo as the army retreated. The conflict is fueled by ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda. Nkunda claims he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who participated in the genocide and then fled to Congo.

November 9, 2008

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— High in the mist-shrouded Mushaki mountains, amid a drenching tropical storm, the rebel leader swept into the crumbling brick farmhouse, his sinewy frame swathed in a red-and-black shawl - dutifully followed by a pet lamb called Betty.

Gen. Laurent Nkunda, extolled by supporters as a gift from God, beamed a toothy smile as he shook hands and exuded charm during an interview with The Associated Press.

The lamb was meant as a symbol of peace - meshing with the image Nkunda has tried to show the world: that he is a responsible, compassionate leader whose only ambition is to bring freedom to his people in the mineral-rich Congo. The rebels are battling Congolese soldiers in a conflict that many fear will spread.

Even as he was giving the interview this week, his fighters an hour's drive away were killing unarmed civilians, looting and burning, according to witnesses and a human rights body.

There was no way to know about the alleged atrocities against civilians as Nkunda spoke at the mountaintop retreat.

The first sound we heard climbing through mud and curtains of rain to Nkunda's camp was a monotonous hum: It was the sound of prayer emanating from a darkened room - a makeshift chapel in one of several brick structures scattered around the jungle.

A drummer started to beat a rhythm, and the congregation of uniformed young men started to sing.

Hours later, when Nkunda finally appeared, he held forth on his religious faith.

"I was born into a Christian family and I have always believed," he said.

The man blamed for a 10-week offensive that has forced 250,000 people from their homes as his fighters captured great swaths of eastern Congo says he's a born-again Christian and one-time Adventist pastor who'd rather be teaching than soldiering.

He's often seen wearing a lapel button reading: "Rebels for Christ."

The conflict in eastern Congo is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002, which drew its neighbors into a rush to plunder Congo's mineral wealth.

Nkunda defected from the army in 2004, saying he needed to protect his tiny Tutsi minority from Rwandan Hutu militias. He has since expanded his mission to "liberating" Congo from an allegedly corrupt government.

New clashes between the army and rebels erupted Friday just outside Goma near Kibati, where about 45,000 refugees have taken refuge. Thousands fled toward the relative safety of Goma.

Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire last week when his forces reached the outskirts of Goma, but the truce has crumbled.

On Thursday, Nkunda appeared in crisp camouflage and a bush hat, with an expensive hardwood cane topped in silver.

"We will continue fighting and we will fight all the way to (the capital) Kinshasa," he vowed.

'There's a problem here'

Nkunda, 41, speaks elegant French, the language of Congo's Belgian colonizers, as well as at least three other African languages, and he has no hesitation expounding his views in English.

He is a self-described anthropologist and philosopher who says he wants to change the mentality of Congo's people, which he says has been polluted by centuries of exploitation and corruption.

"There's a problem here," he said. "Everyone is for themselves. We have to learn ... to want to serve our country. There is this lack of love of our country."

Asked how that could be reconciled with the great suffering his latest offensive has brought upon tens of thousands of refugees sleeping in the open or in unsanitary camps, threatened by hunger and disease, he said: "You have to suffer to be free. That is the price of freedom."

During his four-year rebellion, Nkunda has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Human rights groups for years have asked why Congo's government and U.N. peacekeepers do not arrest him.

Speaking to the AP on Thursday, Nkunda dismissed the allegations: "The International Court conducted investigations and did not and has never found proof against Laurent Nkunda. It's normal for the Congo government to accuse its opponents."

The list of charges cited by Human Rights Watch included a June 3, 2004, case in the eastern Congo town of Bukavu when "Nkunda's soldiers gang-raped a mother in front of her husband and children while another soldier raped her 3-year-old daughter." Amnesty International says his troops have abducted and conscripted children as young as 12.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch and villagers in the eastern Congo town of Kiwanja accused Nkunda's rebels of killing dozens of men in civilian clothes who were suspected of supporting Mai Mai militia against the rebels.

The director of a radio station also said Nkunda's men tracked down one of his reporters, 25-year-old Alfred Ndjondjo Victwahiki Munyamariza, and shot him in the head in his garden in front of his wife and toddler daughter. But that report was false, Munyamariza himself said in a radio broadcast Saturday.

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