NAIROBI, Kenya — Renewed fighting between the Congolese army and rebels has erupted in mountainous eastern Congo, creating a new flood of civilian refugees.
“Almost everyday starts with heavy bombing up in the mountains, about 12 miles from where we are. Both sides appear to be using 120mm mortars now, and there is increased heavy machine gun fire,” came Tuesday morning from Emmanuel de Merode, chief warden of Virunga National Park, where the Congolese national army is battling hundreds of mutineers.
Virunga — where the fighting is currently focused — is home to hundreds of endangered mountain gorillas.
The fighting pits President Joseph Kabila’s government forces against rebels led by Bosco Ntaganda, known as “The Terminator” for his brutality.
The conflict, which erupted last month, has forced tens of thousands of Congolese from their homes, with more than 8,000 crossing the border to neighboring Rwanda and up to 15,000 entering Uganda.
Refugee camps are swelling and aid workers are struggling to provide help. The ongoing displacement is “disastrous,” according to head of the UN refugee agency, Antonio Gutteres.
On Monday Congolese officials claimed their army had killed 25 of the mutineers during an assault on the border town of Bunagana in North Kivu province. Bunagana is a way station for thousands of displaced civilians hoping to cross into Uganda.
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The mutiny began in April when Ntaganda defected from the Congo army. Ntaganda had been a rebel commander but he joined the Congolese army as part of a 2009 peace deal. When Ntaganda left the army in April hundreds of soldiers loyal to him defected, too.
Most of the mutineers are former members of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (known by its French acronym, CNDP), an ethnically Tutsi rebel group that was backed by Rwanda.
Ntaganda’s defection came weeks after his former boss, Thomas Lubanga, became the first person to be found guilty of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Lubanga was convicted in March for recruiting child soldiers during the civil war in 2002-2003; Ntaganda is wanted for the same crimes.
In early May another senior ex-CNDP officer, Colonel Sultani Makenga, also defected and announced the formation of a new group called the “23 March Movement” (M23) after the date of the 2009 peace deal.
Makenga claims the mutiny is not about his comrade Ntaganda but about failed promises and the poor treatment of former CNDP rebels integrated into the national army.
Congolese officials had previously claimed that Ntaganda’s freedom was the price of peace in eastern Congo. But Ntaganda’s defection and the new fighting have earned him Kinshasa’s ire and his arrest is now actively sought, for the first time.
Then on May 14 the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, requested that judges add charges of murder, persecution and sexual slavery to Ntaganda’s outstanding indictment.
Ntaganda’s whereabouts are unclear but he has shown no sign of capitulating, so far. Last week he was accused of continuing to use child soldiers in the current rebellion. Ntaganda has forcibly recruited at least 48 children since 19 April, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Bosco Ntaganda is once again committing the very crimes against children for which the International Criminal Court has been demanding his arrest,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior HRW Africa researcher.
“Children and civilians in eastern Congo will remain at grave risk so long as Ntaganda is at large,” she added.
Meanwhile, thousands of government troops with heavy artillery, attack helicopters and tanks are fighting it out with hundreds of rebels. Civilians continue to flee.
There are echoes of a previous rebellion in 2008 when Ntaganda’s then commander in the CNDP, Laurent Nkunda, led an assault in which the Congolese army retreated in disarray and the rebel forces encircled the regional capital Goma.
Ntaganda’s rebellion is smaller in scale, has less momentum and, unlike in 2008, the extent of Rwanda’s support remains unclear. But long-term observers are cautious.
From Virunga Park, chief warden Emmanuel de Merode, wrote: “Certainly, the experience from the past suggests that it would be a mistake to leave things to chance and to underestimate the fact that the fighting could escalate.”
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