Congo: Civilians capture rebel leader in northwest Equateur province where 200,000 displaced

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Civilians who were being recruited to a new rebel movement in Congo's northwest captured the group's leader Wednesday and he now will stand trial for war crimes, the government information minister said.

The rebel leader known as Odjani is accused of leading an attack on the capital of Equateur province last month and other fighting in the region that has forced 200,000 people from their homes. Odjani, who claims to have mystical powers that protect his fighters from bullets, opened a new front in what was a relatively peaceful corner of this enormous Central African nation long brutalized by violent rebel groups.

Information Minister Lambert Mende said Odjani was captured by youths he was trying to recruit in the village of Dongo. The youths handed Odjani to police officers, Mende said, and the rebel leader is now being transported to the capital where he will stand trial before a military tribunal.

Last month, Odjani's fighters briefly defeated a small force of U.N. peacekeepers and overcame scores of Congolese army troops to capture the airport of Equateur's capital, Mbandaka, for a day. A Ghanaian peacekeeper and a South African pilot were killed, the U.N. said. The government said nine insurgents, four soldiers and two police were killed. A human rights group said many civilians drowned as they overcrowded canoes in attempts to flee across the river to the neighboring Republic of Congo.

"We hope that this latest development, if confirmed, will bring improved stability," said Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs office.

An estimated 100 people have been killed in more than six months of fighting in the region, which is Congo's poorest. An unknown number of civilians also drowned when they tried to escape last month's attack on Equateur's capital, Mbandaka.

It is the latest unrest to roil Congo, whose people suffered through back-to-back civil wars from 1996-2002 that devastated the mineral-rich nation and dragged in the armies of half a dozen African countries.

The new group, which calls itself Nzobo Yalobo in the Lingala language, and in French calls itself the Movement for Independent Liberation and Its Allies, has fed off grievances about Equateur province being the country's poorest and being marginalized since its most famous son, former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, was ousted in 1997 by a rebellion that splintered the country among various warlords. Also marginalized are people associated with another native of the province, former warlord and Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was arrested last year to face charges of war crime and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Former soldiers and fighters loyal to Mobutu and Bemba reportedly have joined Odjani's rebellion.