Civilians have also been caught in the crossfire in combat between the two Ugandan-backed groups and traditional Mai-Mai combatants.
In early 2001 Uganda backed Bemba’s efforts to impose a merger of the several rebel groups it sponsored in the region. In mid-2001 Mbusa, then prime minister of the short-lived merger, attempted to oust Bemba and managed to push him back to Gbadolite. By the end of 2001, Bemba took the initiative again and started an offensive against Mbusa’s forces. He and his ally Roger Lumbala, head of the splinter RCD-National, captured several key towns including Isiro in mid-December, Watsa in mid January, and Bafwasende on January 26— creating further violence against and displacement of the civilian population.
Following these developments, tensions rose dramatically in Bunia, capital of the resource-rich and strife-torn Ituri region and widely regarded as the next target of Bemba’s advance. Watsa is known for its gold and diamond mines and Bafwasende is rich with diamond mines.
The fighting among Congolese political factions exacerbated conflicts among local ethnic groups which dispute control over land. At least a hundred civilians were killed in renewed interethnic fighting in Ituri region in late 2001. With leadership quarrels among the rebels having produced an administrative vacuum, a minor confrontation in mid-December between members of the Lendu and the Alur led to ethnic mobilization and sparked tensions among other groups in the area. The Hema and the Lendu, who have fought frequently in recent years, increased ambushes and other attacks on each other beginning in mid-January and attracted the support of other groups. The Gegere joined the Hema and the Ngiti in support of the Lendu. The death toll in the resulting clashes and in associated attacks on civilians in ambushes and raids is increasing because of the widespread availability of firearms in the region.
As detailed in earlier Human Rights Watch reports, (see “Uganda In Eastern DRC: Fueling Political and Ethnic Strife), Ugandan forces in the region played a key role in triggering and aggravating the conflict between the Hema and the Lendu. General James Kazini, then commander of Ugandan forces in Congo, in June 1999 unilaterally proclaimed Ituri a province and appointed a Hema businesswoman as its governor. The decision fanned local land disputes between the two peoples into open warfare. The sector commander of the Ugandan army during the first phase of the conflict added fuel to the dispute by hiring out his soldiers to Hema landowners for money. In the process of supporting competing Congolese rebel leaders during 2000——at the time the contenders were Mbusa Nyamwisi and Wamba dia Wamba--the Ugandan army provided instructors for the paramilitary training of both Lendu and Hema youth. Many of these recruits deserted shortly after finishing their training, often with the firearms issued to them, and reportedly joined the ethnic militias of their respective groups. An estimated fifteen thousand civilians died in the first round of fighting that took place in 1999-2000. Another 150,000 people were forced to flee the generalized violence, and many of these are still displaced.
In response to the renewed interethnic fighting in January 2001, the Ugandan army pulled companies of soldiers from outposts in Ituri for deployment in Bunia in mid January, leaving behind ragtag rebel soldiers loyal to Mbusa, many of them unpaid and known mostly for preying on the population. Frightened residents of the area then fled to Bunia. The Ugandan army later started redeploying the troops to their previous posts as of February 7th.
In the Kampala Monitor on January 29, Major Shaban Bantariza, Ugandan army spokesman, reportedly said of the rival rebel groups, “Let them fight. We will wait for anyone who comes to our areas of Beni and Bunia. That’s when we shall respond.” Representatives of the competing factions routinely meet in Kampala with senior officials of the Ugandan army and government, including with President Yoweri Museveni, to discuss their leadership differences, and all then return to the areas over which they claim control with the support of Ugandan troops.
Ugandan troops reportedly helped Mbusa’s forces push back an attack by Lendu militiamen on Bunia in the first week of January, a battle in which several attackers were killed. Ugandan troops rushed to Butembo to support Mbusa’s forces after Mai-Mai drove them out of that town on January 12. Scores of civilians were reported killed in that battle and hundreds fled the town. Several dozen Ugandan soldiers had also helped Mbusa take Isiro from Bemba’s forces in November 2001. The Ugandan army command announced an investigation of this incident but the results have yet to be made public.
A consistent supporter also of Bemba and his MLC, Uganda reacted to signs of his possible rapprochement with the RCD-Goma in November 2001, by halting a withdrawal of Ugandan forces from Gbadolite, Buta and Banalia, areas controlled by Bemba. RCD-Goma is supported by Rwanda and Uganda apparently sought to ensure that its supporter not be drawn into the sphere of influence of its rival in Congo, Rwanda. This decision to maintain troops in the area took place two weeks after a representative of MONUC praised Uganda for its policy of withdrawing troops from Congo.
RCD-Kisangani spokespersons charge that Ugandan troops from Buta assisted Bemba in his advance against their forces. They also accused Bemba and the MLC of benefiting from Rwandan support in its current offensive. In response Bemba on January 17 told the semi-official Ugandan newspaper New Vision, “Uganda made me what I am today. My soldiers were trained by Uganda. Only a fool can abuse such generosity.”