Congolese rebel leader apprehended

Posted in Africa | 23-Jan-09 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

A photo from 2008 showing the Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda at his base in Eastern Congo.

ENTEBBE, Uganda: General Laurent Nkunda, the fearsome Congolese rebel leader whose national ambitions and brutal tactics threatened to destabilize eastern Congo, was arrested Thursday night along the Congolese-Rwandan border, United Nations officials said on Friday.

According to the UN officials and statements made by the Congolese military, Nkunda was trying to escape a joint Congolese-Rwandan military offensive that was intended to wipe out several rebel groups terrorizing eastern Congo.

He was captured at a small border town called Bunagana after trying to resist Rwandan troops. "He's going to Kigali," said Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, a UN spokesman, referring to Rwanda's capital.

The arrest could be a turning point for Congo, which has been mired in rebellion and bloodshed for much of the past decade. It was also a stunning turn of events because Rwanda had recently been accused of supporting Nkunda, who was widely considered to be an agent for Rwandan business and security interests in eastern Congo.

Although he never controlled more than a few small towns in the verdant east, he was widely considered to be Congo's No. 1 troublemaker. His troops are tough and brutal and were recently accused by United Nations officials of massacring civilians.

Nkunda was also believed to harbor ambitions to overthrow Congo's weak but democratically elected government, which threatened to draw in Congo's neighbors and plunge the entire central Africa region back into war.

On Thursday evening, hundreds of Rwandan troops converged on Bunagana, one of Nkunda's mountain strongholds. Congolese officials said he refused to be arrested and crossed over into Rwanda, where he was surrounded and taken into custody, apparently without violence.

It was not clear what will happen to Nkunda now. Earlier this week, Rwanda sent several thousand soldiers into Congo as part of a joint operation with Congolese forces to flush out Hutu militants who had killed countless people in Rwanda's genocide in 1994 and were still haunting the hills on the Congolese side of the border.

But few expected the Rwandan troops to go after Nkunda. He is a Tutsi, like Rwanda's leaders, and he had risen to power by fighting these same Hutu militants. A United Nations report in December accused high-ranking Rwandan officials of sending money and troops to Nkunda.

Several demobilized Rwandan soldiers recently revealed that there was a secret operation to slip Rwandan soldiers into Congo to fight alongside Nkunda. In the late 1990s, Rwanda invaded Congo twice, both times using local proxy forces for cover.

But it appears that the Rwandan government has changed tack, possibly because of the criticism it has weathered in the past few weeks for allegedly supporting Nkunda. Several European countries have cut aid to Rwanda, sending a strong signal to an impoverished country that desperately needs outside help.

At the same time, Nkunda has gotten weaker after some of his top commanders recently defected, apparently because they were fed up with his megalomania. The result is a changed dynamic in eastern Congo and possibly an opportunity to finally end the fighting.

"Rwanda and Congo have cut a deal," said John Prendergast, a founder of the Washington-based Enough Project, which campaigns against genocide. He said Congo had allowed Rwanda to send in troops to vanquish the Hutu militants, something Rwanda has been eager to do for some time.

"In exchange, the Congolese expected Rwanda to neutralize Nkunda and his overly ambitious agenda," Prendergast said. "Now the hard part begins."