What does Congo's Gen. Nkunda want?

An ordained preacher and rebel group commander, Gen. Laurent Nkunda is threatening to draw other nations into a war in eastern Congo.

Karel Prinsloo/AP
Adventist minister and general: Gen. Laurent Nkunda leads a major pro-Tutsi rebel group in Congo against government forces.

Gen. Laurent Nkunda, the man laying siege to the eastern Congolese city of Goma, is full of contradictions. He's a successful military commander, almost unbeatable on the battlefield, but he has almost no political future. He's an ordained Adventist preacher, who court-martials soldiers who engage in rape; yet his military chief of staff is a wanted war criminal.

All he wants to do is talk, Gen. Nkunda says. But if the government of Congolese President Joseph Kabila refuses to talk, Nkunda threatens to widen the war and topple President Kabila. He welcomes African peacekeepers if they come as neutrals in a humanitarian mission, but if they fight alongside the Congolese Army (FARDC), he promises to fight them.

"If they come in and fight alongside the FARDC," he told Reuters news agency in a phone interview, "they will share the same shame as the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] government."

Nkunda is by no means the only warlord in the DRC, and human rights observers say the Congolese Army and other armed groups have committed as many atrocities against civilians as Nkunda's men have. But in the two months since Nkunda launched his latest foray against the Congolese government, hundreds of civilians have died in the crossfire, and more than 250,000 others have been displaced from their homes. It's war of a very personal sort, and the more territory Nkunda takes, the more determined the Congolese government seems to defeat him, rather than talk.

"This is not going anywhere quickly, but it is going somewhere bad," says Henri Boshoff, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, South Africa. "Unless the military forces can be convinced to stop fighting, and unless there is international pressure to get Nkunda and Kabila to start talking, we're in for a bad time."

Over the weekend, regional leaders meeting in Nairobi called for an end to the fighting, and vowed to send in peacekeepers to help the UN's own 17,000-man force to restore peace. "The Great Lakes Region will not stand by to witness incessant and destructive acts of violence by any armed group against innocent people of DRC; if and when necessary, the [Great Lakes Region] will send peacemaking forces into the Kivu province of DRC," said the leaders in a statement released.

The Great Lakes Region includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, and the DRC. Another regional group, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), also offered to send in peacekeepers at a separate meeting in Johannesburg.

"SADC should immediately provide assistance to the armed forces of DRC," said SADC executive secretary-general Tomaz Salomoa. "The security situation in DRC is affecting peace and stability in the SADC and Great Lakes region."

On Thursday, one SADC member, Angola, took this idea a step further, threatening to send its own troops into Congo in support of the Kabila government. Such a unilateral move could draw other neighboring countries – some of which are thought to support the Nkunda movement – into an all-out regional conflict. For five years, ending in 2003, nine nations fought in the Congo.

There is little in Gen. Nkunda's past to suggest that he enjoys causing suffering. A former school teacher in the town of Kichanga – where he now has his military headquarters – and a devout Seventh Day Adventist preacher, Nkunda is admired among his own Tutsi ethnic group.

In a brief interview last year, Nkunda told this reporter that he simply wanted to protect his people from armed groups who have a long history of attacking and killing Tutsis, namely, the Rwandan rebels who carried out the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda.

"It's a threat," he said of the FDLR, or the Force Democratique de la Liberation du Rwanda, "and not just to us but to the people of Congo. They have an ideology of genocide, and they did genocide in Rwanda and they want to do it in Congo."

In a region of Congo with literally dozens of armed groups that change allegiances and ideologies all the time, Nkunda has been consistent in his demands – and consistently a thorn in the side of the Congolese government.

He has demanded that Rwandan rebels of the FDLR be returned to Rwanda. He has demanded security for his own Congolese Tutsi minority, who are economically powerful but increasingly reviled. He has demanded that the 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees living in camps in Rwanda be given a safe environment in which to return. And, while he has agreed in principle to disarm his National Congress for the Defense of the People forces, he insists that his men be allowed to remain in the Kivu region, to help protect ethnic Tutsis from internal and external threats.

Yet there is a pattern of cruelty among the troops under Nkunda's command, says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior analyst for Human Rights Watch in London.

In 2002, when Nkunda was a senior commander of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, a now-defunct Tutsi militia backed by Rwanda, Nkunda oversaw the brutal response to a mutiny of his RCD soldiers in the central Congolese city of Kisangani. More than 150 mutineers were rounded up, beheaded, and their bodies tossed into the Congo River, says Human Rights Watch.

In 2004, Nkunda's men took by force the South Kivu capital of Bukavu – then under the control of UN peacekeepers – creating a humanitarian crisis similar to the one today in Goma. Nkunda justified his actions because of the deaths of more than 15 ethnic Tutsi businessmen, but the displacement of civilians in Bukavu, and the crimes committed by his troops – including public rape, says Human Rights Watch – caused a lot more public suffering.

"We have seen the acts of him and his troops," says Ms. Van Woudenberg. "Is he the only one in Congo doing this? No, the Congolese Army itself is abusive, the Mai Mai are horrendous. But let's not make him [Nkunda] out to be a legitimate rebel leader who doesn't have blood on his hands."

Yet, the sheer ease with which Nkunda's forces take territory away from the Congolese Army makes him a force to reckoned with, says Mr. Boshoff. "He's in a very good position," he says. "Basically Goma is under siege and he can take it anytime he wants."

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