Thursday, December 09, 2010

Burundi: Officials downplay FNL rebel activity in eastern Congo

FNL supporters welcoming their leader, Agathon Rwasa, back to Burundi in 2008. Government officials say there is no evidence the FNL is preparing for war Photo: Jacoline Prinsloo/IRIN

IRIN - Amid growing complaints that post-war democratic gains are being reversed in Burundi, officials in the central African state have downplayed reports that a former rebel group has begun remobilizing in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Reacting to a report by a UN Group of Experts on the DRC that quotes "multiple credible sources" on the remobilization of the Forces nationales de libération (FNL) in eastern Congo, Burundi's government spokesman and army spokesman both said there was no evidence the FNL was preparing for war.

Although the FNL signed a ceasefire in 2006, it took another three years for the group to formally end its rebellion and begin a transformation to a political party.

An estimated 300,000 people were killed in Burundi’s civil war between 1993 and 2005.

In a tape sent to the local media in Burundi on 2 December, FNL leader Agathon Rwasa said he had “totally renounced the war”.

Burundi's army spokesman Gaspard Baratuza told IRIN on 6 December that the UN report was "just new information that we have not yet crosschecked. We cannot accept the content of the report as a Bible [gospel truth], it is too early to confirm or reject it; we are still at the stage of doubt, investigation.”

Quoting sources that include the UN Mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, the UN Group of Experts say that since Rwasa’s departure from Burundi, the FNL had remobilized at least 700 of its most experienced combatants in the DRC.

According to diplomatic sources and former FNL members, the experts said, there were more than 400 FNL combatants based in the high plateaux of Minembwe, more than 200 in Kiliba, north of the Burundi border, another 100 north of Sange in the Ruzizi plain and an unknown number in Fizi territory, as at September 2010.

George Ola-Davies, MONUSCO's director of public information, told IRIN on 8 December there had been "indications of increased activities of armed groups in eastern Congo, including those of the FNL recently. It was mainly for this reason that MONUSCO launched 'Operation Protection Shield' in November.

"The operation was in the Minembwe, Fizi and Uvira areas in South Kivu Province and was aimed not only at neutralizing these armed groups but also to reinforce security for the population in the area."

Operation Protection Shield

Ola-Davies said the operation involved ground, air and Special Forces, drawing troops from many contributing countries.

"It also involved active patrolling of Lake Tanganyika in order to prevent supply lines to the armed groups through the eastern waterways," he said. "The operation, which was fully coordinated with the Congolese armed forces [FARDC], was successful in that, among other things, it created favorable conditions for IDPs [internally displaced persons] to return and reinforced mutual confidence with the government authorities."

He said any armed movement within Congolese territory was a source of worry; "hence MONUSCO is doing everything with its available resources to nip them in the bud".

Operation Protection Shield, Ola-Davies said, ended on 29 November after putting in place "a good number of barriers for whoever wanted to use Congolese soil as a launching pad to attack any country".

Since the end of the operation, he said, MONUSCO had not noticed "any odd movements; that is not to say everything is closed, it is a constant process since eastern Congo has activities of many armed groups".

Lack of evidence

Burundi's government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba said Burundi would not consider Rwasa - who fled the country in June and is said to be in eastern DRC - a security threat unless "we have sound evidence that he is preparing war".

In that case, Nzobonariba added, "the government will take appropriate measures to protect the security of citizens".

He said Rwasa left the country without letting the government know of his destination or his plans. "On the eventual presence of Rwasa in Congo and the activities he is carrying out, Rwasa is the only one to confirm or deny. Not being not the initiator of the [UN] report, the Burundi government is only attentive to the revelations of the report."

Army spokesman Baratuza said Rwasa had not claimed that people behind crimes committed in the country were his members. "Tomorrow he can do it, I don’t exclude that, but we cannot judge him without sound evidence of his involvement in the crimes committed in the country.

"It is true that his exile or absence from the country is a bit worrying but there is no arrest warrant against him because he is not accused of any crime; even if I met him I would not arrest him."

Political tensions

Elections held in Burundi this year, some of which were boycotted by the opposition, increased political tensions and, amid widespread reports of oppression against opposition parties, led several political leaders to leave the country.

Baratuza said the army would take "decisive action" if the information contained in the UN report turned out to be true.

"The issue will not only be in the hands of defence officials then but diplomatic channels will also be used," he said. "We will work with DRC security officials; we even have good relations with them."

Reacting to a claim in the UN report that Rwasa was receiving support from the Union pour la Paix et la DĂ©mocratie (UPD), an opposition political party, UPD chairman Zedi Feruzi said his party was a political organization "inconsistent with armed struggle. We want to strengthen democracy and bring our contribution to the settlement of crucial issues such as human rights, corruption, transitional justice; this differs from staging a war."

The army has, however, boosted security on the border with DRC. “We have several battalions in the Rukoko forest to ensure the protection of the border. Groups had always operated from the forest and if you occupy the ground first, it is a good thing,” Baratuza said.

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