Measures to keep peace in Congo draw fire

Critics say the deals run contrary to the UN's mandate by letting war criminals go free and undermining long-term peace.

In the days before July's historic elections, some hurried deals were done to keep peace in the war-racked eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two of the country's most infamous militia leaders sat down with the government to sign handwritten peace accords. Also at the table was the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC).

Polling day passed peacefully. But critics say the deals run contrary to the UN's mandate by letting war criminals go free and undermining chances for a long-term peace. "These peace agreements are deeply faulty," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, Congo specialist at Human Rights Watch (HRW). In offering impunity, the deals, "are rewarding war criminals rather than holding them to account," she argues.

Ethnic battles have convulsed this mineral-rich region for years. The recent cycle began in 1998 with invasions from Rwanda and Uganda. That war ended in 2003 after an estimated 3.9 million people had died, most from disease and malnutrition. Armed groups splintered during peace negotiations and many militias still roam eastern Congo, carrying out attacks.

The UN says that its first duty is to protect civilians targeted in ethnic fighting.

"The most important thing is to bring an end to the bloodshed, and in that respect it has been successful," says MONUC spokesman Kemal Saiki. "Since these deals were signed, there has not been any large-scale fighting in Ituri."

Mr. Saiki adds that while the UN facilitated the deals, "we are not party to the horse-trading. That is a Congolese matter."

At major junctions around Bunia, a small garrison town, some of Ituri's 3,500 peacekeepers peer out from sandbags topped with barbed wire, armored personnel carriers point machine guns down roads, and Humvees race between fortified compounds.

Former Red Cross medical assistant Mathieu Ngudjolo sits in a mud and grass building in Kambutso, outside Bunia. He wears an ID card identifying him as a "General" and leader of the Congolese Revolutionary Movement (MRC), one of the last rebel militias active in Ituri.

On July 26, Mr. Ngudjolo signed an agreement that includes the offer of a general amnesty to his group as well as integration into the national army. Ngudjolo has been promised the rank of colonel.

"This is a slap in the face for victims, and sends the signal that if you want to become an army leader, start a rebel group and kill some people," says Ms. Van Woudenberg.

Recently, MONUC peacekeepers in Ituri have found themselves helping an ill-disciplined and often abusive Congolese army (the FARDC). In May, seven MONUC soldiers were kidnapped and held for weeks by militia leader Peter Karim. After their release, MONUC facilitated deals with Mr. Karim and Ngudjolo, and negotiations are under way with a third warlord, Cobra Matata.

According to HRW reports, these militia leaders are responsible for a range of atrocities, including recruitment of child soldiers, displacement of civilians, ethnic massacres, rape, and murder.

Surrounded by baby-faced fighters, Ngudjolo denies any atrocities. "We don't have infant soldiers," he says. And ... when soldiers fight, people are displaced."

Last week, the International Criminal Court charged Thomas Lubanga, an Ituri militia leader, with recruiting child soldiers. Mr Lubanga was extradited to The Hague in March, but Ngudjolo says he has nothing to fear. "I cannot fear international justice because for what can I be arrested? I have created a political movement!"

Ngudjolo claims to have 10,000 fighters. After brief retraining, those age 18 or over will receive Army uniforms and be redeployed in Ituri. "The FARDC is fast becoming an army of war criminals," charges Van Woudenberg, something that could "kick-start another cycle of violence."

Dieudonne Mbuna, a senior political voice within Ngudjolo's militia, has little time for such complaints. "In Congo we have so many criminals, we can't just talk about the militia leaders. If they want justice they must arrest all of the Congo!"

For now the peace is holding. "If this is what it takes to end the fighting," says Saiki, "so be it."

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