We are ready for war, rebels warn Kabila

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The Independent Online

With the voting barely over and the count still going on across the vast central African country, Congo is threatened with the prospect of a return to civil war by one of the main rebel groups. Speaking from his mountain headquarters in North Kivu, in the east of the DRC, the warlord Laurent Nkunda warned the new government that he was "ready for war".

Nkunda, who is accused by the UN of war crimes, said the only way war could be avoided was if Joseph Kabila, the front-runner in early projections following Sunday's poll, allows more than 50,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in neighbouring Rwanda to return home safely.

"Let back our people and let them be accepted as Congolese," said Nkunda. "It is not right if Kabila says no. We are soldiers. We are going to fight."

In an election campaign beset by the issue of nationality, Mr Kabila rallied support in the east by insisting that none of the Tutsi refugees - whom he dismissed as Rwandans - would be allowed back into the DRC. Even if Mr Kabila accepted Nkunda's demands, there is a likelihood of renewed inter-ethnic fighting. There is a strong anti-Tutsi sentiment, mainly stemming from atrocities committed during Rwanda's occupation of the east between 1998 and 2002.

Nkunda, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant, is believed to have up to 3,000 troops loyal to him in North Kivu, and analysts believe he is preparing for fresh fighting.

According to Save the Children and Amnesty International, Nkunda has been re-recruiting child soldiers - some as young as 12 - after abducting them from their homes. A bus carrying 13 former child soldiers was ambushed by Nkunda's troops on 22 June. Six of the children were taken and held in an underground prison where they were beaten. They were released after two days, following UN negotiations with Nkunda.

He denied ever using child soldiers and said he had arrested the officer who ambushed the bus. "What can I do with children? You cannot use children," he said. "If I want to recruit there are many people, adults, who will join. I will allow the NGOs to see whatever they want here."

As part of the transition from civil war to peace, militia groups were supposed to be integrated into the federal army. Not only have Nkunda's forces refused to integrate but two divisions, the 81st and 83rd brigades, are loyal to Nkunda.

A softly spoken father of six, Nkunda studied psychology at university before joining the Rwandan Patriotic Front's rebellion against the Hutu-led Rwandan government in 1993. He fought alongside Jospeh Kabila in the successful rebellion in 1997 that overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko, before becoming a major military force in the RDC - a Rwandan-backed movement that at one stage controlled one-third of Congo.

The RDC's political leader, Azarias Ruberwa, has said he will challenge the results of Sunday's elections, claiming there was widespread vote rigging, although he has so far provided no evidence. But even in North Kivu, where the RDC and Nkunda are most popular, Ruberwa was polling in the single digits at several major polling stations, while Kabila received around 85 per cent.

Such overwhelming support for Kabila leaves Nkunda in a tricky situation. He dismissed the election as a "non-event" but suggested he would wait for several months before he considered an attack. "We are observing. I refuse to be the person who is blamed. But my population is suffering. We will have to react."

Nkunda's forces have led three major attacks on towns in the east in the past three years and he has called for Kabila's government to be overthrown. Since the international arrest warrant was issued by Mr Kabila no effort has been made by either the Congolese army or the 17,000-strong UN force in the DRC to detain him. His headquarters are well-known and UN patrol cars regularly drive past. "If they come to arrest me," Nkunda said, "it will be an open fight. I will defend myself."

Further north, in Ituri, the three main militia leaders signed a peace agreement with the government in the run up to last Sunday's election. But while those leaders were prepared to accept high level positions within the Congolese army, Nkunda said he would refuse any job offer from Mr Kabila, unless his concerns were met.

"My problem is not my position, it is my people. If Kabila accepts my people to come back and he arranges for their security, I will accept a job. We do not want to fight," he said. "We are ready to talk. But we are also ready to fight."

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