(New York) - The transitional government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and U.N. peacekeeping troops must immediately arrest Laurent Nkunda, a former officer in the Congolese army who has been charged with war crimes and whose rebel forces have renewed military operations in eastern DRC, Human Rights Watch said today. Nkunda’s whereabouts have been well-known to the Congolese authorities and U.N. peacekeepers since the warrant for his arrest was issued in September 2005.
"An arrest warrant was issued against Nkunda for war crimes, crimes against humanity and insurrection months ago but the police and army have done nothing about arresting him," said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "So long as Nkunda is at large, the civilian population remains at grave risk."
On January 18, rebel forces attacked and occupied several towns in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu province, after routing Congolese government soldiers stationed in the area. After a brief period of calm, combat resumed during the past weekend. The rebels were said to be under the orders of Nkunda, an allegation confirmed by the provincial governor in a communiqué issued January 26. Local sources report that both rebel forces and Congolese army troops have raped and otherwise attacked civilians and looted their property. Tens of thousands of Congolese have fled to neighboring areas or across the border to Uganda.
In September 2005 the government issued an international arrest warrant for Nkunda, who had been implicated in numerous war crimes and other serious human rights abuses during the past three years. In past investigations, Human Rights Watch has documented summary executions, torture, and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command, in Bukavu in 2004 and in Kisangani in 2002.
Nkunda was a senior officer in the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma), one of the main rebel groups fighting in DRC from 1998 to 2003. In 2004 he was named general in a new national Congolese army created from troops of the dissident forces at the end of the war. He refused the post and withdrew with hundreds of his troops to the forests of Masisi in North Kivu. In August 2005 he announced a new rebellion but launched no military operations at that time.
Nkunda has remained at large even though provincial government authorities, the Congolese army and U.N. peacekeeping forces knew of his whereabouts. Local journalists and civil society sources reported his frequent visits to Goma, seat of the North Kivu provincial government, and a major operations center for Congolese soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers.
In October General Gabriel Amisi, a former colleague of Nkunda from the RCD-Goma and commander of the 8th military region of North Kivu, told Human Rights Watch researchers that he knew where Nkunda was but gave no explanation why he did not arrest him.
On October 21, 2004 the Security Council in resolution 1565 directed the U.N. troops to cooperate with Congolese authorities "to ensure that those responsible for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are brought to justice," a directive it repeated with added emphasis on December 21, 2005 (resolution 1649). Asked by Human Rights Watch researchers why U.N. peacekeepers had not assisted in arresting Nkunda, one senior U.N. official mentioned possible repercussions from Rwanda as one reason.
"The U.N. and the Congolese government need to muster the political will to take action. Every civilian who was the victim of war crimes during the recent fighting paid the price of continuing impunity in the DRC," said Des Forges. "It's long past time to arrest Nkunda."
Background on Laurent Nkunda
Laurent Nkunda (known also as Nkundabatware), born in North Kivu, joined the RCD-Goma rebel forces in 1998. He received military training in Rwanda, including at Gabiro military camp, and became the commander of the Seventh Brigade of RCD-Goma forces.
In May 2002 Nkunda, together with General Amisi, was among the RCD-Goma officers responsible for the brutal repression of an attempted mutiny in Kisangani where more than 160 persons were summarily executed. In one incident, forces under Nkunda's command bound, gagged, and executed twenty-eight persons and then put their bodies in bags weighted with stones and threw them off a Kisangani bridge. After the U.N. began investigating these crimes, Nkunda and several armed guards entered the U.N. premises and abducted and beat two guards.
At a Security Council briefing on July 16, 2002, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson called on Congolese authorities to arrest those who ordered or were involved in the massacre, and warned of further bloodshed if they were not brought to justice.
Despite the supposed end to the war and the establishment of a transitional government in 2003, dissident soldiers loyal to RCD-Goma clashed with other Congolese army forces in South Kivu in May 2004. Nkunda and troops loyal to him took control of the South Kivu town of Bukavu on June 2, claiming his action was necessary to stop a genocide of Congolese Tutsi, known locally as Banyamulenge. During the fighting, Nkunda's troops carried out war crimes, killing and raping civilians and looting their property. In one case on June 3, 2004 Nkunda's soldiers gang-raped a mother in front of her husband and children while another soldier raped her three-year-old daughter.
After U.N. peacekeepers negotiated Nkunda's withdrawal from Bukavu, he and some of his forces headed into the forests of North Kivu while others, commanded by Col. Jules Mutebusi, found safety in Rwanda. The Congolese government has issued an international warrant for the arrest of Mutebutsi, charged like Nkunda with insurrection, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Congolese Foreign Minister also wrote to Rwanda, requesting Mutebusi's return to Congo, but Rwandan authorities have not handed him over.
In August 2005 Nkunda declared the current government corrupt and incompetent and said it must be overthrown. In September 2005 a large number of Rwandaphone soldiers belonging to the former RCD-Goma deserted the national army in North Kivu and some of them went to join Nkunda in the forests of Masisi.
On January 18, forces loyal to Nkunda took several North Kivu towns, including Tongo, Bunagana and Rutshuru. After a lull following a show of force by the U.N and national troops combat resumed on January 28 in Rutshuru town, causing the remaining residents to flee.