UN and Congolese forces arrest rebel commander for alleged mass rapes in eastern Congo

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rebel commander arrested for alleged Congo rapes

JOHANNESBURG — Fellow rebels handed over the Congolese commander arrested for allegedly leading fighters in the mass gang-rapes of more than 300 people, a U.N. official said Wednesday.

Sadoke Kokunda Mayele was surrendered Tuesday by his comrades-in-arms at Irameso, the U.N. official said of a mining village in the Walikale district among several controlled by rebels. Congo’s massive mineral resources long have fueled the conflict in east Congo.

“His group claimed that he had tarnished their name and that whatever he did was not under their instructions and that they wanted to get rid of him,” Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, head of the U.N. mission in Congo’s North Kivu province, said in a telephone interview.

Many victims were assaulted by five and six fighters and some described fighters raping them with their fists, saying “We’re looking for the gold.”

Mayele was an officer in the Congolese army before he joined the Mai-Mai militia led by Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi, known as Commander Sheka. A nurse who treated 124 of the rape victims including some in Sheka’s home village of Binyampuri told The Associated Press that one of Sheka’s wives, two sisters and three of his cousins were among those attacked.

Sheka initially denied his fighters were involved. In an interview with Radio Kivu U.N. last month, he blamed FDLR rebels led by Rwandan Hutu perpetrators of that neighboring country’s 1994 genocide.

But victims told doctors they were attacked by a mixed group of fighters from the Mai-Mai Sheka FDLR and some army deserters who had fought in a Congolese Tutsi rebellion before being integrated into the army last year. The U.N. said about 200 fighters from the three groups were involved.

Sellassie said Mayele, who was handed to military justice officials, had been identified by name by several rape victims.

Victims of the mass attack included villagers living within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of a U.N. base of Indian peacekeepers, causing international outrage and raising yet more questions about the ability of a billion-dollar-a-year mission to fulfill its primary mandate of protecting civilians.

It took days for help to arrive, even though a peacekeeping patrol escorted commercial trucks through one of the villages, Luvungi, while it was held by the fighters. A U.N. report said the patrol noticed signs of looting but took no action because no one told them what was going on. The soldiers were not accompanied by an interpreter, and few peacekeepers speak the local languages.

The U.N. mission, accused in the past of also lagging in duties to help Congolese authorities arrest perpetrators, promised to work strenuously to bring the latest rapists to justice.

“This is just the beginning, we are hoping and will try to get more arrests, which is not an easy endeavor,” Sellassie said.

Information Minister Lambert Mende also promised more action. In an interview with the AP in Kinshasa, he called Mayele “the person responsible for this military operation” but added, “The pursuit doesn’t stop there. We are going to draw up a list of all the people implicated in the crimes of Walikale who followed Mayele’s example so that justice can be rendered.”

Civil society leaders in Walikale told the AP other commanders placed at the scene of attacks by victims were a Col. Seraphin of the FDLR and former Congolese army Col. Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, a brother of one of Walikale’s key army commanders.

The United Nations said 303 civilians — 235 women, 13 men, 52 girls and 3 boys — had been raped in 13 villages between July 30 and Aug. 2. Even in Eastern Congo, where rape has become a daily hazard and some women have been raped repeatedly over the years, such numbers are startling.

Margot Wallstrom, responsible for U.N. efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict, called Mayele’s arrest “a victory for justice” and “a signal to all perpetrators of sexual violence that impunity for these types of crimes is not accepted and that justice will prevail.”

The 18,000 peacekeepers in Congo make up the biggest U.N. mission in the world but still are scattered sparsely — there were only 35 at the base near the scene of the rapes — because this Central African nation sprawls across an area the size of Western Europe with few paved roads and dismal communications. The attacked villages have no cell phone service.

U.N. peacekeepers are challenged for resources and by the thickly forested terrain into which rebel groups quickly disappear when confronted. They also are hobbled by a mandate that requires them to support the Congolese army, a mismatch of former rebel groups and a demoralized army that is ill-paid, ill-fed, often left to live off the land and brutalizes the population as much as the rebels — raping, pillaging and burning huts of those they accuse of supporting the enemy.

Such exactions have increased since the army began an offensive against the Rwandan-led FDLR last January. Now the army says it’s preparing a massive campaign against rebels in the Walikale area, raising new fears for civilians.

Associated Press Writer Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Kinshasa.

(This version CORRECTS spelling of rebel leader’s name to “Sheka” sted “Cheka”.)

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