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DRC rebel defectors deny Rwanda links

Several young men who turned up at a UN base in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after allegedly defecting from a  breakaway faction of the Congolese army, calling itself M23, have refuted media reports that Rwanda was behind their conscription.

Several young men who turned up at a UN base in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after allegedly defecting from a  breakaway faction of the Congolese army, calling itself M23, have refuted media reports that Rwanda was behind their conscription.

They were responding to questions from a joint DRC-Rwanda verification team on May 29 and 30 in the eastern Congolese town of Goma, in the presence of representatives of the UN mission in Congo (MONUSCO).

A report by the joint verification team, a copy of which The New Times has seen, says five of the alleged defectors dismissed reports that they had implicated Rwanda, describing them as “wrong and exaggerated.”

“Five of the ten (interviewees) asserted that, contrary to what was broadcast on BBC, they had no military training before their conscription. They declared that (reports) that they had been recruited, trained and armed to be sent at the warfront in DRC are wrong and exaggerated,” reads part of the report.

The document, signed on June 26, was signed by DRC’s Col. Jean Claude Yav and Rwanda’s Col. Fred Muziraguharara, who head an eight-member team that investigated the claims.

The interviews, according to the report, were conducted at the UN Stabilising Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) Headquarters in Goma, North Kivu, in the presence of observers from the UN Mission, who co-signed the document.

Quoting an internal UN report, BBC last month reported that 11 Rwandan defectors from the new Congolese rebel group had told MONUSCO that they had been recruited, trained and armed in Rwanda and later ferried to the Congolese side of the border to take part in the mutiny.

One of them is said to be 15-year old and was thus not interrogated since he is a minor. The other ten are said to be between 18 and 21 years old.

Six of those interviewed claimed to be Rwandans but could not present Rwandan IDs.

Besides the joint DRC-Rwanda findings, the report also includes statements from the alleged rebel defectors during separate interviews with Rwandan and Congolese investigators.

According to the findings by the Rwandan team, the “subjects claimed that they were recruited by two civilians (in plain clothes), transported in civilian vehicles. No government official, vehicle or facilities are referred to at any point.”

“They did not encounter any uniformed personnel until they (allegedly) met armed individuals wearing FARDC (Congolese army) uniforms in the Virunga National Park. No Rwandan Defence Forces uniform is mentioned at any point. The subjects (claimed) they received boxes of ammunition, petrol and tents from these FARDC-uniformed individuals in the forest,” partly reads the report with regard to Rwanda’s own findings.

The Rwandan investigators question the validity of claims that the alleged defectors had been conscripted between February and April, 2012, saying that M23 rebels did not have any presence in Runyoni area until the second week of May 2012.

“Runyoni was still under full control of FARDC”.

They also described as self-defeating, contradictory and highly dubious claims that “... all subjects, despite having been recruited on different dates and by different individuals, claim to have used the exact route;  Mudende-Bigogwe Market-Ruhengeri-Hotel Bushokoro-Virunga National Park-Runyoni; that they were conscripted by two ununiformed civilians who somehow managed to shepherd and control 23 recruits from their home area all the way to Virunga National Park without any means of coercion”.

However, extracts from separate findings by Congolese investigators indicate the recruitments “occurred in Mudende, Bugeshi and Kabari in Rubavu District, adding that “there were no FARDC officers in a position of defection, desertion, and even less of mutiny.”

“All the persons recruited in Rwanda were brought to eastern DRC to conduct the illicit exploitation of Congolese minerals and to conduct killings of Congolese families, in view to destabilise the DRC institutions and support General Bosco Ntaganda because he speaks the same language as the recruits,” the Congolese version reads.

However, a highly placed Rwandan official challenged the argument that the young men had allegedly been sent over the Congolese border to exploit the country’s wealth, citing the fact that Kigali, last November, returned to DRC 82 tonnes of minerals that had been illegally smuggled into Rwanda.

“If Rwanda could return 80 tonnes of minerals, how many tonnes would these 11 people mine with hoes? That’s clearly a made-up allegation,” the official argued.

The Rwandan government has strongly denied links to M23 rebels, insisting that it was being used as a scapegoat for Congolese failure to fix their own internal weaknesses.

The initial allegations, which the defectors have rejected, according to the DRC-Rwanda joint inquiry, were largely the basis for a growing chorus of international accusations against Kigali.

On the implications of the findings by the joint verification team, Rwanda’s Defence and Military Spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, said last evening: “The findings reaffirm what we have said from the onset; the allegations were nothing but just that. We suspect foul play. The findings raise more questions than they answer, and call for further investigations to establish the reasons and source of the allegations”.

“It is clearly a set-up,” he said.

The findings are likely to render credence to growing suspicions in Kigali that Kinshasa staged the whole plot.

“My guess is that DRC arrested a number of youths they suspect to be of Rwandan origin or who speak Kinyarwanda, delivered some to MONUSCO for propaganda purposes, and held others in their military barracks. I see a link between the 11 young Rwandans who were beaten and tortured before they were delivered to the Rwandan border last week,” said a Kigali-based observer, who declined to be named.

He added: “Kinshasa has played on the minds of many people, they are exploiting the fact that some people want Bosco Ntaganda’s head. There are internal political problems in Congo, and the government is trying to deflect attention from their failure”.

Ntaganda is wanted by ICC for crimes allegedly committed a decade ago.

Meanwhile, The New Times could not establish the outcome of yesterday’s meeting in Goma between Rwanda’s Defence Minister, Gen. James Kabarebe, and Chief of Defence Staff, Lt. Gen. Charles Kayonga, with their Congolese counterparts. The meeting was part of continued bilateral efforts between both sides to try to find a peaceful settlement of the ongoing conflict.

M23 is composed of some former members of the CNDP and PARECO rebels who had joined the national army in 2009 after a Rwanda-brokered deal.

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