KIGALI, Rwanda – A group of Congolese soldiers who created a rebel group after defecting from the army have no intention of laying down their weapons despite an ultimatum from the government and the expiration of a cease-fire with the military, one of their leaders said Thursday.
Col. Innocent Kaina spoke by telephone from his stronghold of Masisi in northeastern Congo. Thousands of people have fled Masisi and its neighboring provinces after Congo's military launched an offensive on April 29 against the defectors. The five-day cease-fire expired Wednesday.
"We will not look back," Kaina told The Associated Press. "They had said we should put down our guns, but we didn't. We still have guns and are ready to fight whoever attacks us."
The soldiers that led the mutiny belong to the now-defunct CNDP rebel group, whose fighters signed a peace deal on March 23, 2009, agreeing to be integrated into the Congolese army.
That deal has come to embarrass Congo's government because the CNDP's ex-leader, Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes allegedly committed by his men against villagers in eastern Congo. He has been allowed to live freely despite the international arrest warrant, and to enjoy the rank of general in the regular army.
Ntaganda's soldiers began to defect from the army in early April, charging that the government had failed to hold up its end of the March 23 peace accord. The defections turned into a full-blown mutiny when Congo surprised the world and announced that the military would arrest Ntaganda.
The mutinous soldiers have fled into the bush, where they regrouped, issuing a press release on the letterhead of the former CNDP, saying that they had launched a new rebel group, called the M23 — for March 23, in reference to the date of the 2009 peace treaty.
Kaina is one of several high-ranking army officers leading the defectors. The new group claims to have no link to Ntaganda.
The colonel said he had helped create the new faction to protect "his people" from rapes and killings by Congolese forces. Like the former CNDP, the M23 is dominated by fighters from the Tutsi ethnicity. Kaina spoke just hours after the government's cease-fire elapsed.
"Our mission is to protect our people from the rapes, looting and killings by (Congolese President Joseph) Kabila's forces. We are not looking back," Kaina said, denying that the rebels have lost ground to government forces.
Over the weekend, the military claimed it had won back from the rebels the areas of Masisi, Mushaki and Rutshuru. They also claimed that the rebels had been pushed into the mountainous Virunga National Park, toward the Uganda-Rwanda border.
"We haven't lost any ground. We still have our stronghold. As we talk, I am in Masisi. They cannot be stronger than us," Kaina said, claiming that he has some 6,000 men under his command.
Asked about the whereabouts of Ntaganda, Kaina said he didn't know. "You should ask the government, I thought that he is a government soldier," Kaina said, in an effort to dispel rumors that the two are connected.
The dissident colonel also claims that his group is recruiting more fighters ready to take on government forces. Congolese army spokesman Sylvester Ekenge could not immediately be reached for comment.
The new claims by the rebels signal more trouble for volatile eastern Congo, as more people continue to flee into neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. Kaina hinted that the current hostilities could blossom into a full-scale war, ending three years of relative peace in the troubled Central African nation.
According to United Nations figures, over 7,000 people, mainly Congolese Tutsis, have crossed into Rwanda fearing escalating violence, while about 8,000 crossed to neighboring Uganda.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Kinshasa, Congo.