GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO— Nearly 30 people have been kidnapped in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since the beginning of April, according to a North Kivu-based civil society group, which says it knows where some of the victims are being held.
The latest victim, Gratien Bahati, a coordinator of Catholic schools, was abducted Sunday on his way to the town of Rutshuru Center.
According to a witness, he was traveling as a passenger on a motorbike when abductors approached in police uniforms. Bahati was released shortly after a $3,000 ransom was paid, said Gauthier Muhindo, a civil society group member who says there has been an upsurge in kidnappings for ransom in the past month, particularly in Rutshuru territory.
"There is a new trend in North Kivu that is leading armed groups that do not have access to the illicit-minerals trade and cannot control roadblocks to ... make money: notably kidnapping for ransom," he said.
Bertrand Bisimwa, leader of the M23 rebel group that controls Rutshuru Center and much of Rutshuru territory, denied his group's involvement in kidnappings when addressing media earlier this week.
According to Bisimwa, new gangs recently sprung up in the forests around Rutshuru. He says M23 members even persuaded 73 of these young men to join his rebel movement.
"As for the others, they have made a business of kidnapping because the government has not given them work," he said, explaining that M23 is now tracking down members of the errant gangs to put an end to their activities.
The North Kivu civil society group does not accept M23’s denial of involvement in the kidnappings.
"The group has identified five cases of people who were kidnapped by the M23 in Rutshuru territory since April 28," Munhindo said. "Before that, other people were kidnapped by other armed groups."
One recent abductee was killed while two others have been released, said Muhindo, adding that his civil society group knows of places where the others are believed to be held.
One of the places, he said, is M23’s military camp at Rumangabo.
Word of the kidnappings comes amid continuing concern about human rights violations in eastern DRC. Earlier this week, U.N. investigators said government troops raped at least 130 women and girls after fleeing an M23 advance in November.