Gunmen free 220 prisoners in eastern Congo raid

Unidentified gunmen yesterday blasted their way into a prison in eastern Congo with heavy weapons, freeing 222 prisoners in a raid that killed five people, witnesses and local officials said.

Reuters adds the raid took place at 0300 GMT in the lakeside town of Uvira in Congo’s South Kivu province, which, like its sister province to the north, remains mired in conflict long after United Nations-backed post-war elections were held in 2006.

“They attacked several parts of town at once. They came to free some of the prisoners.

They succeeded, then headed back up into the hills,” said Victor Chomachoma, Uvira’s territorial administrator.

Chomachoma said Uvira’s central prison had been holding 231 prisoners at the time of the attack but just nine remained after the assault, during which gunmen used machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.

Three of the attackers, one government soldier and a female town resident were killed during the attack, he added.

Soldiers captured four gunmen, whose identity was not immediately confirmed but residents suspect came from the Burundian Hutu rebel National Liberation Forces (FNL).

“They are believed to have been FNL associated with a local Mai Mai (militia) group,” a local journalist said.

Despite the official end of a devastating 1998-2003 war, Congo‘s eastern borderlands remain largely outside government control, creating a lawless patchwork of strongholds of both home-grown militias and foreign rebel groups.

The FNL rebels have remained active in northwestern Burundi, southern Rwanda and eastern Congo despite signing a peace deal with the government in Bujumbura in September 2006.

The attack in Uvira comes as Congo‘s army and United Nations peacekeepers were preparing to launch a military offensive against another Congo-based foreign rebel group — the Rwandan Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The FDLR includes some former Rwandan soldiers and Interahamwe militia members responsible for carrying out Rwanda‘s 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred.