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Congo Peace Imperiled by Armed Groups in East


Congo's 2006 democratic elections were intended to usher in a new era of peace in the once war-torn nation. And while improvements have been seen in certain areas across the vast country, holdout armed groups in the east pose a serious threat to Congo's emerging democracy. Noel King has more in this report from Kigali.

Congo's government says the solution to chronic violence in the east is the formal integration of Congo's numerous armed groups into the regular army.

Congo's armed forces are badly demoralized and undisciplined. Soldiers say they are poorly paid and sometimes not paid at all.

A stronger army would be charged with disarming holdout militias and ridding the region of Hutu militias known as the FDLR.

Original members of the FDLR were allegedly among the perpetrators of neighboring Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slain by Hutu militias.

Routed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, Hutu militias poured into neighboring Congo, where they continued attacks on eastern Congo's Tutsi population.

The FDLR, however, tells a different story.

Leaders say they are merely displaced Rwandans, who have been forbidden to return to their country because they are ethnic Hutus.

Bravo Jean Bernard is the leader of the FDLR in Masisi area. Jean Bernard says the FDLR represents the people forced out of Rwanda and that they just want to go home. He says they can't go home because Rwandan President Paul Kagame forced them out. He says they have no links to the Rwandan genocide.

Jean Bernard denied Rwandan claims that the FDLR plans to launch attacks against Rwanda. He says the FDLR wants to react strongly against Kagame's government but they don't want to act militarily, they want to act politically. He says he cannot discuss any plans in detail because they are a strategic secret.

Neighboring Rwanda wants to see the FDLR neutralized.

Observers say Rwanda is supporting, with arms and troops, the rebellion of Laurent Nkunda, a media-savvy ethnic Tutsi who has styled himself as a protector of Congo's Tutsi population.

Rwanda strongly denies that it has given arms to Nkunda but President Paul Kagame says the rebel leader has legitimate grievances.

Rene Abanzi, a spokesman for Nkunda says the rebels have no interest in continuing the conflict in Congo.

"Our vision is to defend people. We didn't decide to [take] out the Kabila regime," he said. "We decided only to defend our people from genocide."

But analysts say Nkunda has the backing of some powerful people in the region, whose interests do not necessarily include protecting Tutsis.

Jason Stearns is an independent political analyst in the region. Stearns says Nkunda's rebellion can be traced to the defeat of former Rwandan-backed rebels called the Congolese Rally for Democracy, or RCD, who controlled North Kivu until Congo's 2006 election.

Unpopular with many Congolese, the RCD was voted out of power.

Nkunda's emergence as a rebel leader has a lot to do with the collapse of the RCD," he said. "Many of the politicians and economic leaders in North Kivu who had developed substantial political and economic interests in the region during the war, backed Nkunda either explicitly or behind the scenes as an alternative to the political process that, they saw, did not really guarantee them any rights whatsoever.

Another group, the Coalition of Patriots in the Congolese Resistance, or PARECO, calls itself the emerging political wing of the Mai Mai militias.

Congo's Mai Mai are community-based armed groups. During Congo's 1998-2003 war, the Mai Mai resisted occupation by invading Rwandan troops. Since the end of the war, Mai Mai groups have splintered and formed new alliances, and are accused of banditry throughout the region.

PARECO is yet another group that has refused to go to be integrated into the regular army, a process known locally as brassage.

Daniel Baloume is PARECO's number two official in Masisi. He says PARECO accepts to go to brassage, but Nkunda's troops have to go also. He says they will not go until Nkunda goes first. He says they fear the Congolese army cannot defeat Nkunda, and that is why they will not join.

Both the FDLR and PARECO deny that they are backing Congo's army to fight Nkunda's rebellion.

But at a hospital in Masisi, VOA met members of both groups who were suffering from gunshot wounds. Leaders of both FDLR and PARECO said the wounds had not been sustained in battle, but declined to elaborate further.

While all armed groups claim to be operating on patriotic or idealistic grounds, there is a strong economic component to their resistance.

Eastern Congo is rich in minerals including gold, diamonds and casseterite, a valuable ore used in electronics.

Oil was also recently discovered beneath Lake Albert which straddles Congo's border with Uganda.

Congo's mining industry is notoriously disorganized and many say that anarchic violence allows warlords and the armed groups at their command, to strip the region of its resources.

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