Accessibility links

Disarmament Program in Congo's Northeast Gets Off to Slow Start - 2004-09-28

With just 32 militiamen turning up with weapons in the first two weeks, the disarmament program in Congo's troubled Ituri district has got off to a slow start. Some delays were expected, but analysts fear that continuing insecurity and unmet demands will mean that gunmen in the mineral rich northeast will not lay down their weapons.

It was never going to be an easy process, persuading some 15,000 gunmen in Ituri, the mineral rich but lawless northeastern corner of the Congo, to lay down their weapons.

For years, militia leaders have run their own fiefdoms, taxing traders and controlling vast areas rich in gold and other minerals, including coltan, which, when refined, is used in almost all cell phones, laptops, pagers and many other electronics.

But following last year's upsurge in ethnic violence, the U.N. mission in Congo has deployed nearly half its 10,800 soldiers in Ituri and they are hoping to speed up the disarmament of the fighters.

A national disarmament program has not yet begun, but it was hoped that fighters in Ituri would lay down their weapons, reintegrate themselves into the community and help rebuild the district, where 50,000 people have been killed since 1999.

According to the plan, after spending five days in a disarmament camp, former fighters are due to receive $50 for transport home, a reintegration package and help in finding employment.

However, two weeks into the $10.5 million disarmament program, the U.N. says that just 32 fighters have turned up with their guns.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. office overseeing the program, said some armed groups might take time to get to the sites due to the distances they had to travel.

He also said the process had been made more difficult as some leaders of the armed group were not be in control of their men, many of whom have turned to banditry to earn a living.

However, analysts point to other factors making for conditions that were not yet conducive to disarmament. They say fighters would want something substantial from the government for giving up lucrative trading and mining operations in the region.

Last week's massacre of 16 civilians near Bunia, the capital of Ituri, has also undermined confidence between the seven armed groups, most of which are still organized loosely along ethnic lines.

Congo's government is struggling to lead the vast African nation to elections after a five-year war that involved six neighboring countries and killed three million people, mostly from hunger and disease.

And some faction leaders say they want the government to fulfill its side of a deal signed in May and integrate the militiamen into both the transitional government and a new national army.