Congo passes amnesty law for eastern rebels


Lawmakers in the Democratic Republic of Congo passed a law creating an amnesty for nearly two dozen illegal armed groups as part of a peace deal meant to end fighting in the violence-ravaged east.

The law, which pardons acts of war and insurgency and was passed late on Wednesday, applies to homegrown rebels and militias in North and South Kivu provinces, where around 1 million people have been displaced by fighting since late 2006, Reuters adds.

“We want to open new paths to peace in our country. The nation truly hopes to turn the page,” Information Minister Lambert Mende said on Thursday.

The amnesty is part of a peace deal that helped end months of heavy fighting between Tutsi insurgents, government troops, and pro-government militia in North Kivu that had raised the spectre of yet another Great Lakes regional conflict.

Eastern Congo is a major source of minerals cassiterite and coltan, which are used in consumer electronics, and whose sale funds armed groups there.

Earlier this week, Belgium-based minerals merchant Traxys said it will stop buying ore from the east of the country in response to United Nations pressure to break the link between the minerals trade and violence.

Under the peace accord, originally signed in January 2008, over 15,000 rebel fighters, including the Tutsi-dominated National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), were officially placed under the command of the army.

The CNDP’s founder and ex-leader, General Laurent Nkunda, was arrested in January in neighbouring Rwanda. He is awaiting extradition to Congo where he is accused of committing war crimes. Mende said Nkunda would not be included in the amnesty.

“(The amnesty) excludes war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of genocide. It applies only to elements in Congolese territory at the time of the law’s entering into effect,” the minister said.

The law must now be signed by President Joseph Kabila.

On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of Rwanda and Congo said Nkunda could be sent to a third country while the two nations, former enemies during the five-year conflict, hammer out the details of his transfer to Congolese authorities.

Nkunda’s replacement at the head of the CNDP’s armed wing, General Jean Bosco Ntaganda, is being sought by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for recruiting child soldiers.

According to documents seen by Reuters, he now holds a key position in the eastern command structure of the army, which is preparing to launch an offensive against Rwandan Hutu rebels in South Kivu with the backing of United Nations peacekeepers.

New York-based rights campaigner Human Rights Watch (HWR) commended the lawmakers’ decision to exclude war crimes and crimes against humanity from the amnesty.

“Parliamentarians should now push the government to arrest those responsible for such crimes, rather than promoting them into the senior ranks of the army or the government,” said Anneke van Woudenberg, HRW’s senior Congo researcher.

Congo‘s 1998-2003 war sucked in a half dozen of the vast central African nation’s neighbours and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe that has killed an estimated 5.4 million people over the past decade.

Despite the conflict’s official end, much of Congo‘s eastern borderlands have remained a volatile patchwork of rebel fiefdoms and militia strongholds.