Human Rights Watch (HRW) said President Joseph Kabila’s regime had drafted in fighters previously active in the M23 rebel group from neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda to help suppress the December 2016 demonstrations, which erupted when he refused to step down at the end of his constitutional mandate.
The allegations coincide with a flare-up of violence after Kabila pushed back a much-delayed new vote until December 2018, with the opposition demanding that the veteran leader resign before then after 16 years in power.
“Senior security force officers in the Democratic Republic of Congo mobilised over 200 former M23 rebel fighters from neighboring countries to quash protests against President Joseph Kabila in December 2016,” HRW said in a report.
It said Congolese security forces acting with M23 fighters killed at least 62 people and arrested hundreds more as the protests swept through the vast African country between December 19 and 22 last year.
M23, a mostly ethnic Tutsi rebel group, was defeated in November 2013 by Congolese forces and troops of a large UN peacekeeping mission in the country. Hundreds of fighters fled the country but officials and residents in the eastern region of Kivu said they had seen militants return.
Once transferred to DR Congo from military and refugee camps across the border, the M23 fighters were deployed to the capital, Kinshasa, and to Goma and Lubumbashi, where they were integrated into the security forces, including the presidential guard, HRW said in the 69-page report.
“To protect the president and quash protests, the M23 fighters were given explicit orders to use lethal force, including at ‘point-blank range’ if necessary,” the report said.
It cited an M23 fighter who said the ex-rebels were instructed “to shoot immediately at the slightest provocation by civilians.”
– ‘Chase HRW out of DR Congo’ –
Congo’s resource-rich eastern provinces have suffered years of brutal conflict, with bordering states backing rebel groups in a war against Kinshasa’s authority, and roaming armed militia triggering the mass flight of terrorised civilians.
“These accusations are fantasy to undermine the credibility of the FARDC (the regular army),” Defence Minister Crispin Atama Thabe told AFP in response to the report.
“To repel attacks by these former M23 rebels, we lost officers, helicopters. How can we recruit those who fight us?” he added.
The minister declared that “HRW should no longer operate in DRC.
“I’m going to get involved to see that they are chased off the national territory.”
HRW said its findings were based on more than 120 interviews and that during the protests, “M23 fighters patrolled the streets of Congo’s main cities, firing on or arresting protesters or anyone else deemed to be a threat to the president.”
“Covert operations to recruit fighters from an abusive armed group to suppress any resistance show how far President Kabila and his coterie are willing to go to stay in power,” said Ida Sawyer, the organisation’s Central Africa director.
“Congolese officials should end all unlawful use of force against protesters and allow peaceful political activities by activists and the political opposition.”
M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa said via Twitter that the DRC government had recruited “deserters and undisciplined men” sacked from the movement and based them in the eastern towns of Kisangani and Goma.”
Political opposition forces are demanding that Kabila — who took office after his father Laurent-Desire was assassinated in 2001 — step down on December 31, but authorities made several arrests ahead of an opposition march earlier this month.