Congo Used Rebels to Quell Anti-Kabila Protests, Group Says

(Bloomberg) -- The Democratic Republic of Congo’s government recruited fighters from a rebellion it defeated in 2013 to help suppress protests by opponents of President Joseph Kabila last December, Human Rights Watch said.

Senior Congolese security officials mobilized “at least 200 and likely many more” M23 combatants from camps in Rwanda and Uganda, where many fighters have been based since the armed group’s defeat in November 2013, the New York-based advocacy group said in a report published Monday.

The men were then deployed in December 2016 in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, and the cities of Goma and Lubumbashi where they were given “new uniforms and weapons and integrated into the police, army, and units of the Republican Guard, the presidential security detail,” it said.

Kabila’s decision 12 months ago not to step down at the end of his mandate triggered protests throughout the copper- and cobalt-rich country. A crackdown by the security forces led to the death of at least 62 people and the arrest of hundreds more between Dec. 19 and Dec. 22, according to Human Rights Watch. The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office said in a report published in February that gunshot wounds on several victims showed the security forces used a “shoot-to-kill approach” to deal with the demonstrators.

‘Truly Ridiculous’

Congolese police spokesman Colonel Pierrot Mwanamputu and armed forces spokesman General Leon-Richard Kasonga didn’t respond to calls from Bloomberg seeking comment on the report. Government spokesman Lambert Mende called the allegations “truly ridiculous.”

“We have a professional army and a professional police force,” he said by phone Sunday from Kinshasa, describing M23 fighters as “little killers and thugs.”

Before its defeat in a joint offensive by UN and Congolese forces, M23 was the strongest rebellion in eastern Congo, an area where dozens of armed groups continue to operate more than a decade after the end of the country’s civil war. During its insurgency, which lasted from April 2012 to November 2013, M23 controlled large parts of the mineral-rich region and briefly captured its biggest city, Goma.

Carte Blanche

Human Rights Watch said the Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan governments facilitated the journeys of the recruited fighters, providing vehicles, flights, army uniforms, accommodation, food and free passage. Once they arrived in Kinshasa, Goma and Lubumbashi, the combatants “were given orders to use all available means to quash protests and protect the president,” according to the report.

Rwandan army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Innocent Munyengango declined to comment and Ugandan army spokesman Richard Karemire’s mobile phone was switched off when Bloomberg called seeking comment.

Ugandan Defense Minister Adolf Mwesige sent a letter to Human Rights Watch to say no incident of covert recruitment by Congo of M23 combatants in Uganda “has ever been reported to the Uganda authorities.”

M23’s president, Bertrand Bisimwa, denied “any involvement of M23 officials in the clandestine operations of the Congolese government” in a statement sent from Uganda’s capital, Kampala. He said the people enlisted to go to Congo “for the ends of repression” were “deserters and other indisciplined men.”

The report was based on more than 120 interviews with people including M23 fighters, commanders and political leaders, as well as Congolese security and government officials. Some combatants said they agreed to participate in the crackdown because they were well paid, promised positions in the Congolese army and had been told by their superiors Kabila would protect their interests, Human Rights Watch said.

Most of the fighters returned to their camps in Rwanda and Uganda in late December and early January, according to the report.

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