Dear President Museveni,

Human Rights Watch is writing to you today to express its deep concern about the reported flare up in the fighting between members of the Lendu and Hema ethnic groups in the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have learned that in the week of August 14 several interethnic clashes occurred in the region of Bunia, the headquarters of the Ugandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), including one, on August 14, in which about a hundred people, mostly Hema, were killed. We fear that these incidents may prepare the ground for the resumption of this deadly interethnic conflict, leading to more violence. We believe that, in view of its decisive influence in the region, your government bears a grave responsibility for ensuring that violence against civilians from whatever quarters is promptly contained, and those responsible for it are held accountable.

Human Rights Watch commends your government for its recent decision to investigate the conduct of some officers of the Ugandan People's Defense Force (UPDF) over misuse of power during the conflict between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. The Sunday Vision on August 13 quoted a spokesman for the UPDF, Maj. Phinehas Katirima, as saying "I know of one officer, Capt. Kyakabale, who is being investigated. But I am not sure of the nature of the offence." It also quoted "local authorities" in Bunia who esteemed that "the clashes would have been resolved much earlier had it not been for the controversial role played by certain Ugandan officers who backed wealthy 'Hema' tycoons and 'Hema' militias against the majority 'Lendu' ethnic group."

Sparked in June 1999 by localized frictions between members of the two groups over land tenure issues, this fratricide war has so far resulted, according to U.N. estimates, in some seven thousands deaths. At least 200,000 people were displaced by the conflict at the peak of the crisis, and were hiding in the forests where humanitarian assistance could hardly reach them.

Human Rights Watch believes that the increasing divisions within the RCD-ML over the last few months have led to the exasperation of ethnic tensions between the Lendu and the Hema and to similar tensions among other population groups in the region. Prof. Wamba on Friday August 11 issued a decree suspending Mbusa Niamwisi, the movement's prime minister, and Atenyi Tibasima, the deputy prime minister, accusing them of fermenting the mutiny to evade accountability measures introduced by him. The two, and other dissenting RCD-ML officials, have countered that Prof. Wamba was not popular in the region, and that he lacked administrative and leadership skills.

However, this political contest rapidly assumed ethnic overtones. The two ousted officials have presided over recruitment for the Arm? Populaire Congolaise (APC), the military wing of the RCD-ML. They reportedly raised the army largely along ethnic lines, with Mbusa recruiting heavily among members of his Nande community, and locating his headquarters in the largely Nande town of Beni, and Tibasima enlisting mostly youngsters of his own Hema tribe. The ouster of the two might therefore have been a factor in fueling renewed violence in the region. In effect, we are also in receipt of credible reports indicating increasing tensions in the town of Beni, where supporters of Mbusa Niamwisi, the suspended prime minister, are reportedly poised to resist the installation of the official designated to replace him by the currently prevailing RCD-ML faction.

According to reports, the UPDF has trained the military wing of the RCD-ML, and continue to exert decisive influences on events in areas nominally controlled by the RCD-ML. Indicative of these influences, Human Rights Watch is aware that you have last week agreed to a petition submitted to you by a delegation of elders from Bunia to spare their region the added trauma of an imminent confrontation between overwhelmingly superior UPDF units and the lightly-armed group of RCD-ML mutineers. The delegates have asked that Ugandan troops sent to Bunia to quell the mutiny use peaceful means rather than force to obtain the surrender of hundreds of young rebel soldiers who had fled to the bush after failing to oust the RCD-ML leader. One delegate told Human Rights Watch that many among the mutineers were child soldiers.

Given the tragic human costs of these events, Human Rights Watch urges your government to expand its current investigation of the role of the UPDF in the interethnic clashes in Bunia region beyond the officers who are under investigation. We urge the Ugandan government to conduct a full, independent and transparent investigation into reports of participation of some UPDF elements deployed in the conflict zone in civilian killings, and looting and destruction of civilian property. Those found responsible should be held accountable for their actions.

Human Rights Watch asks that the UPDF respect the fundamental rights of RCD-ML mutineers who may surrender to it. The UPDF should communicate a full list of their names and places where they are held to the ICRC and grant that agency access to all places of detention. All detainees should be allowed to receive visits from their family members.

Lastly, Human Rights Watch calls on the Ugandan government and the RCD-ML authorities to:

-Issue clear instructions to their forces to respect international humanitarian law.

-Allow unrestricted access and safe passage to humanitarian agencies trying to reach needy populations.

-Allow full access to independent human rights investigators looking into allegations of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.

-Stop the recruitment of children in the Congo. RCD-ML soldiers under the age of eighteen should be immediately demobilized.

Thanking you in advance for your anticipated action on these urgent recommendations,

Sincerely Yours,

Suliman Baldo
Senior Researcher
Africa Division