While his soldiers rape and pillage, the rebel general insists: 'We come in peace'

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The Independent Online

An air of colonial grandeur hangs over the governor's residence in Bukavu. Its sprawling lawns would be ideal for a diplomatic cocktail party.

An air of colonial grandeur hangs over the governor's residence in Bukavu. The white, Belgian-built mansion commands spectacular views over picturesque Lake Kivu. Its sprawling lawns would be ideal for a diplomatic cocktail party.

But yesterday the governor was out. A pair of combat fatigues drying on the first floor balcony hinted at the new occupant - renegade army commander Brigadier-General Laurent Nkunda, who stormed into Bukavu at the head of a 1,000-soldier column last Wednesday. "We have come here in peace," said the lanky, lean-faced 36-year-old soldier with a coy smile.

Brig-Gen Nkunda's surprise offensive has plunged the democratic Republic of Congo into turmoil and stoked nervous fears of impending war. As his force advanced, the government defences crumbled. Some soldiers defected; others cast off their uniforms or fled to the surrounding hills.

The next day the furious Congolese President, Joseph Kabila blamed neighbouring Rwanda for being behind the attack. Rwanda has sparked two rebellions against Congo in the past eight years, and has close ties with Brig-Gen Nkunda. Across the country furious mobs surged through the streets holding anti-UN protests. Massive crowds burned UN vehicles, stoned officials and surrounded the UN headquarters in the capital, Kinshasa. In Bukavu, Brig-Gen Nkunda's troops embarked on an orgy of pillage and rape against the city's civilians.

Yesterday, most of them had retreated to make-shift barracks near the city centre, but their leader remained at the governor's mansion.

The rebel leader said accusations of Rwanda involvement in his offensive were completely false: "That is a misunderstanding. Yes, they are our allies. Sometimes we speak by phone. But Rwanda is not behind this operation."

He said his troops had seized Bukavu to halt the "genocide" of the Banyamulenge - a minority Tutsi tribe with historical links to Rwanda. "They day they began to kill Banyamulenge, I started my march on Bukavu, my war," he said, stabbing the air with his finger.

UN officials refute any suggestion of a genocide in Bukavu. So do some of his own troops, some of whom seem to be soldiers of fortune. "That is just a lie," said a soldier lounging on a chair by the mansion gate.

Nevertheless ethnic tensions are accompanying the violence. Some Banyamulenge citizens were attacked after the attacks on Bukavu started last week, said UN officials. Another 2,000 people fled across the border to Rwanda.

There is little doubt that Brig-Gen Nkunda has strong links with Rwanda. Born into an ethnically Rwandan family in Congo, in 1993 he joined the Tutsi rebellion that seized control of Rwanda a year later. Since then he has fought with Rwanda or its proxies, and his long, gaunt face has drawn comparisons with the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. But the rebel leader insists he is a Congolese like any other - and not just a fighter, but also a farmer. When not waging war he looks after his three farms in North Kivu province, where he has 800 cattle, he boasted. Their milk is so tasty that his troops carried 200 kilos of home-made cheese on their march to Bukavu. "They were our dry rations," he said.

A former commander with the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) rebels, Brig-Gen Nkunda refused to join the new Congolese army after a peace deal was signed last June. Now his attack on Bukavu has placed peace in great jeopardy.

A game of cat-and-mouse with the UN is underway in Bukavu. On Thursday night the Swedish military commander, Brig-Gen Jan Isberg, announced Brig-Gen Nkunda had agreed to withdraw his troops "well outside" Bukavu. But yesterday Brig-Gen Nkunda said he was only leaving the city centre.

The next move may be made by the Kinshasa government. After initially furious outbursts, President Kabila sounded a more conciliatory note on state television yesterday "The insurgents must lay down their arms and the Rwandan troops must retreat," he said, asking the UN to "get involved with more determination."

Brig-Gen Nkunda has laid down a list of conditions for the government, one of which is an investigation into the alleged Banyamulenge genocide. Human rights workers say this is ironic given that he is also wanted on war crimes charges. In May 2002 RCD-Goma brutally quelled an attempted coup in the northern diamond trading city of Kisangani. Over 160 suspected mutineers were executed, some of whom had their heads cut off before being thrown into the Tshopo River. Brig-Gen Nkunda was commander of the RCD Brigade in Kisangani at the time.

"Basically he is a pretty nasty character who has committed numerous crimes and has never been brought to justice," said Anneke van Woundenberg of Human Rights Watch in London.

Brig-Gen Nkunda has promised to complete his troops' withdrawal by this afternoon. Yesterday some troops remained on the streets, including a small cluster who stood before a factory gate.

"The beer factory," explained their commander. "We are very proud. It hasn't been touched."

But for many Bukavu residents, Brig-Gen Nkunda's word of retreat do not mean much. As night fell, about 1,000 people bedded down on the lawn of the UN compound, sleeping behind a razor wire fence and the protection of 800 peacekeepers.

One team of UN officers has rescued over 1,200 people, plucking them from their houses at night and racing through the deserted streets to safety in the fortified compound.

"One family had been hiding in the roof for three days, others had been completely looted. There were many cases of rape," said UN officer Marcos Lorenzana.

Another officer, Naomi Miyashita, crammed 30 people into her pick-up truck. "They were really terrified," she said.

The two young officers prepared to go out in the deserted town again last night.