Villagers say Rwandan troops crossed into Congo

Mar 18, 2013, 10:58 AM EDT

KIBUMBA, Congo (AP) — Villagers in a town on the Congo-Rwanda border say they saw a half dozen trucks with Rwandan soldiers cross into Congo last week to lend support to troops led by a wanted rebel leader.

"They started coming in two weeks ago. They left their uniforms at the border," said Pierre, a villager who only spoke on condition his second name wasn't used because of possible retaliation against him.

Pierre said he and his family fled into the bush to escape the fighting. When they came back, their house had been pillaged and all their belongings were gone, he said.

The account Rwandan troops entering Congo was backed by two other villagers who also declined to give their full names. Rwanda has steadfastly denied aiding rebels in Congo.

Hidden away in the volcanic landscape, the village of Kibumba has been the theater of some of the most intense fighting between two rival factions of the rebel group known as M23. Dozens of men died on each side.

"I've never seen anything like that," said Col. Vianney Kazarama, an officer loyal to the movement's military leader, Gen. Sultani Makenga. "We hardly ate or drank anything for seven days, and there were so many casualties".

The operations were led by Col. Innocent "India Queen" Kahina, a battle-hardened officer of Tutsi origins. According to Kahina, Bosco Ntaganda was also on the ground himself.

"I saw him across the battlefield. We shot at him, but he got away", Kahina said.

Bosco Ntaganda, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, is called "The Terminator" because of his reputation as a ruthless. As a young man, Ntaganda joined the RPF, a rebel group led by the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, that put an end to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. After that, Ntaganda was alternatively leading rebellions or integrated in the Congolese national army.

In 2009, he betrayed Laurent Nkunda, his commander in the CNDP rebel group, in exchange for a position as a general in the Congolese army. He rebelled again in April 2012 when the Congolese government, yielding to international pressure, planned to hand him over to the International Criminal Court.

Until the movement split, Ntaganda's presence was always denied by the M23.

"When we were in Goma, he was in town, too. Runiga was protecting him," Stanislas Baleke, an M23 political cadre, said Monday.

Makenga dismissed the political head of the movement, Jean-Marie Runiga, in February. Both men then formed their own factions, which have been fighting since. Runiga's faction is said to be allied with Ntaganda.

According to several United Nations reports, Ntaganda has benefited from Rwanda's support, although Rwandan authorities strongly deny the claim.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, peace talks between the M23 and the Congolese government have been put on hold in the wake of the split in the rebel group.

Chrispus Kiyonga, the Ugandan minister of defense, said Monday it was not clear when both parties would return to the talks, although he said he wants them back within a week.

Representatives of the rebels and the Congolese government last met on Feb. 6.

Kiyonga said the split within M23 "presents a new challenge" for the talks, which Uganda has mediated since December under the banner of a regional bloc called the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, or ICGLR, of which Congo is a member. Regional leaders under ICGLR have said M23's grievances are "legitimate."

The fighting within M23 has left some of the rebel group's representatives stranded in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, with Makenga naming a new political chief and alienating those believed to be loyal to Runiga. Francois Rucogoza, the former leader of M23's peace delegation to Uganda, is now afraid to go back to Congo, Kiyonga said.

The split within M23 was the result of a new thinking among some in the rebel ranks who suspect they would lose the patronage of regional countries such as Rwanda if they failed to make peace with the Congolese government, said Angelo Izama, a political analyst with a regional security think tank called Fanaka kwa Wote.

"What caused the rift, as far as I can understand, is that a deal has been brokered by Makenga and others to give up Ntaganda," Izama said. "I don't think there is anything more sinister than that."


Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda contributed to this report.