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Former Congolese Rebel Leader Nkunda to Face Trial in Rwanda Friday

The trial of former Congolese renegade army General Laurent Nkunda is expected to begin today (Friday) in the Rwanda border town of Gisenyi near the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Political observers have questioned the rationale behind Kigali's decision to prosecute the former rebel leader whose insurgency was mainly within the DRC. Kigali captured Nkunda early this year after he crossed the border into Rwanda while attempting to resist arrest by a joint Rwandan-Congolese military force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But Kigali has so far refused Kinshasa's request to extradite Nkunda so that he may stand trial in the DRC.

Jack Kahora is the VOA correspondent in DRC who will be attending Friday's trial. He tells reporter Peter Clottey that there are suspicions surrounding Kigali's refusal to hand over the former rebel leader for trial in DRC.

"That is what we heard from people who are close to him (Nkunda). But also last week we had an interview with his wife who said that on the 17th of April 2009 her husband would be going on trial, and some sources confirmed this saying at eight o clock in the morning the trial will take place at the tribunal of Gisenye, that is the neighboring town of Goma," Kahora pointed out.

He said the trial of the former Congolese rebel leader in Rwanda is controversial.

"I think that Rwanda was trying to make a file on him and on his case in Rwanda that is why they have to put him on trial before he is sent to the DRC authorities. Maybe that is why they are organizing this trial, but I don't think it would be appropriate to put him on trial in a country where he did not commit any crime," he said.

Kahora said Kinshasa has so far been quiet about Friday's trial of the former rebel leader.

"The government of DRC hasn't made any comment on this, apart from the last meetings of the ministers in which they announced that they are in good contact with Rwanda authorities, and that the extradition of Nkunda is expected as soon as possible. We don't know it is in this process that Rwanda is organizing this trial so that he can be extradited to the DRC," Kahora pointed out.

He said some Congolese are wondering why Kigali is conducting the trial instead of Kinshasa.

"What we are expecting is to hear first why Rwanda has to organize such a trial since we know that he didn't commit anything wrong on Rwanda side. What is the purpose of such a trial in a country on which Nkunda didn't commit any crime? This is what we want to learn more from today's trial being organized by Rwanda," he said.

Kahora said Friday's trial presents an opportunity for members in the media to ascertain Nkunda's response to the charges that would be leveled against him.

"It is also an opportunity for us journalists because as you know since he (Nkunda) was arrested on the 23rd of January up to now, no journalist has gotten the opportunity to hear from him or speak with him, and also no member of his family has been allowed to visit him or talk to him. So, it will be a great opportunity for us to see how he is and how is going to explain himself about the charges against him today," Kahora noted.

Some Congolese say Rwanda detained Laurent Nkunda apparently as part of an agreement with Congo that opened the way for thousands of Rwandan soldiers to cross the border in a joint operation to hunt down Rwandan Hutu militia.

Congolese political Analysts say Rwanda was under intense international pressure to use its influence over the Tutsi rebellion to end the crisis. At the same time, Rwanda and an alleged clique of rebel commanders had grown disenchanted with Nkunda, who they increasingly regarded as a flippant, authoritarian megalomaniac who allegedly embezzled money from rebel coffers.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Nkunda after he led his Tutsi National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) rebel group and committed various atrocities in Congo's restive North Kivu province and surrounding areas. The ICC accused him of war crimes in the town of Bukavu, in the eastern province of Sud-Kivu, which his forces captured in June 2004

Nkunda was first believed to have first fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which took control of Rwanda in 1994, ending the genocide there. In 1998, he reportedly became a senior officer in the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RCD), the main rebel group which controlled most of eastern DRC during the five-year civil war. Nkunda was accused of committing atrocities in 2002 as an RCD commander in the town of Kisangani and as a result has been referred to as the "Butcher of Kisangani".

The former rebel leader claimed initially that he was defending Congo's Tutsi minority, but indicated last year that he wanted to liberate all of the Congo and install a better government. He accused current President Joseph Kabila of illegally signing contracts with the Chinese and refused to recognize the government.

Weeks before Nkunda's capture, his rebel group had forced President Kabila's embattled government to negotiate at the peace talks in Kenya after his fighters advanced to the outskirts of North Kivu's regional capital, Goma, forcing more than 250,000 people from their homes.

Kinshasa hailed the surprised arrest of the former CNDP leader reportedly hoping it would herald a new era of peace and mark the end of Congo's Tutsi rebellion. But few believe the country's problems are over and many fear the unprecedented and unpopular deal with former enemy Rwanda is a risky gamble that could unleash more bloodshed.

Political observers believed Nkunda's trial would enhance the efforts of Kinshasa towards finding a lasting solution to the ongoing insecurity in the restive North Kivu province and surrounding areas where rebel insurgency was pronounced.