The general who holds Congo's fate in his hands

Rebel leader Nkunda has presidency in his sights and vows to make his country 'big' again

Sitting in the shade of a tree in a Rutshuru schoolyard, Laurent Nkunda is in the final act of his "Man for All Seasons" performance. He has danced with small children, acted the fiery demagogue before a crowd of thousands, displayed his military strength and even cracked a few jokes in Swahili. Now he considers the idea of becoming president of the Democratic Republic of Congo: "President I can be. It is my right as a Congolese. My dream is not to be president; but if that is the way, then I will be," he says.

The renegade general whose sweeping advance last month triggered mass panic in Eastern Congo and threatened total humiliation for the UN's biggest peacekeeping force, is now casting himself as the peacemaker. Sitting with his trademark silver-topped cane resting between his legs, he says that there is a "peace process" now, but warns that if that changes he could march on the region's biggest city at any time: "If there is no solution and the answer is [to take] Goma, then we will go to Goma."

After impressing the UN peace envoy and former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, last week with his businessmen's attire of a snappy grey suit, General Nkunda was back in pale military fatigues. He may be a feared soldier with the power to displace a million people in North Kivu province and rout the government's forces at will, but he converses like a veteran politician. His answer to any question is immediate, fluent and opaque.

The 41-year-old farmer turned soldier wants to make this already vast country "big" again, but in what way is unclear; he won't rule out becoming president in the future but hints that leadership of the army could be his aim. He is contemptuous of the elections staged at huge international expense two years ago.

"We have elections, not democracy. What is democracy?" he asks. "Is it poverty? Is it bad governance?" Congo has both of those on an overwhelming scale, but the general shows little concern for the victims of his stalled revolution: "Of course there is suffering. We are at war." But the suffering is worst, he insists, in the areas beyond his control.

The Tutsi general, who says he is trying to protect that minority group from Hutu extremists, has carved out a huge realm for himself in Eastern Congo. He stopped short of taking Goma itself, declaring a unilateral ceasefire (although that has been strained by clashes between his men and local forces loyal to a government thousands of miles away in Kinshasa). Now he is attempting to translate his undoubted military power into political capital, starting with a rally in the battered town of Rutshuru.

Held inside the crumbling concrete walls of the local stadium, the rally took several hours to draw a crowd on Saturday, and the people who came ranged from passive to sullen. Left to wait all morning in the merciless heat, those in the front row were handed placards proclaiming "peace and reconciliation". Attempts to whip up a frenzy ahead of the general's arrival included a Congolese brass band and teenage rappers thanking God for the "Liberator" of Rutshuru. All to little effect. When General Nkunda, leader of the rebel movement calling itself the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), did arrive, in a luxury Lexus SUV surrounded by jogging troops, he told the nervous crowd not to be afraid of him and said he brought peace, not war, to Congo.

Rutshuru – two hours north of Goma and ringed by fertile farmland – provides, along with nearby Kibumba, most of Goma's food. It helps give the general control of the city's food and water supply. Rutshuru has quickly come to feel like the capital of a new country, with the rebels moving immediately to appoint administrators. There is even a humanitarian affairs co-ordinator, set up in an office looted by the retreating government troops.

But the local population, who are returning only slowly after fleeing the rebel advance, are unconvinced by a man accused of being a Rwandan stooge. "We are all Congolese!" General Nkunda shouts from the stage, to a lukewarm response.

Above all, General Nkunda claims that the charges of looting, killing and recruitment of child soldiers made against his troops are false. A dazed boy in a filthy black T-shirt, looking no older than 12, is brought before the crowd. He is given a microphone to say that he was fighting with the Mai Mai – a catch-all name given to chaotic local militia groups – but has seen the error of his ways.

There is scant mention of the mass killings at Kiwanja, only a few kilometres away. General Nkunda's only comment on Kiwanja is a flat denial that his men have been killing civilians.

This is not Zulfati Kabemba's memory of what happened in her village. A 25-year-old school teacher, she has fled to Goma. She says that after the CNDP took over her area it was quiet to begin with. But a bungled attack on 7 October by young fighters from the amorphous Mai Mai militia brought a terrible and indiscriminate backlash from Nkunda's men.

She says the Mai Mai launched hit-and-run attacks on the CNDP, firing, then hiding in peoples' houses in Kiwanja. She and her family barricaded themselves inside their home for nearly three days: "We could hear them going into houses and shooting. We could hear voices running past outside, shouting: 'They are killing people.' " When her brother Francois could stand it no longer, and went outside find a toilet, he was shot dead with a bullet to the head. When the family decided to break cover and run there was devastation outside: "We were running over dead bodies."

Ms Kabemba says the Red Cross estimate of 200 killed in the fighting is low, and that 300 may have died. She blames the Mai Mai for using local homes to launch their attack but is angry at Nkunda's CNDP too: "They killed without asking questions."

Laurent Nkunda: The Tutsi 'protector'

*The father of six was born into a farming family and studied psychology at university.

*General Nkunda, a self-proclaimed "protector" of the Tutsi community, learnt soldiering during the Rwandan genocide and the Congolese civil war.

*He fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel movement formed by Rwandan Tutsi exiles, which took control of the country in 1994 and ended the genocide.

*He returned to his native Congo to lead a Rwandan-backed rebel group which would not join the Congolese army, as did the other rebels, when the five-year civil war ended. His fighting force has 6,000 troops.

*An international arrest warrant has been issued against him for war crimes. Human Rights Watch reports that his troops are responsible for killings, rapes and torture.

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