RUTSHURU, Congo – Nearly 30 people have been kidnapped in eastern Congo by the M23 rebels in their fief of Rutshuru since the beginning of April, said a community leader on Wednesday. The kidnappings appear to be for ransom, a new and worrying trend in Congo's lawless east.
The latest abduction took place Sunday, when an advisor to the area's Catholic schools, Gratien Bahati, was stopped on his way back to Rutshuru's town center. He was released after a $5,000 ransom was paid, according to the president of North Kivu Civil Society Thomas d'Acquin Muiti.
At least few other kidnap victims have been released on ransom, while others are still missing. The M23 rebel group denies being involved in the kidnappings, even though they are the only armed rebels in the area.
"We were 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Rutshuru when three armed men wearing police uniforms stopped us, and placed themselves on each side of the motorbike," said Georges Mumbere, the motorbike taxi driver who was carrying Bahati. "They called him by his name and forced him to get off and then they walked away with him in the bush," he said.
School was cancelled on Monday in Rutshuru following Bahati's abduction. Bahati was freed on Tuesday, after the ransom was paid to the kidnappers, said Muiti. The M23 said they had nothing to do with the incident.
The M23 rebels celebrated the one-year anniversary of the creation of their armed group with a ceremony in the town center earlier this week, but residents privately complained about the growing climate of fear under the rebels' rule.
"There is too much insecurity, it's even dangerous to go to school," said Asante, a 15-year-old girl dressed in the white blouse and long blue skirt that is her school's uniform. She would only give her first name, out of fear of reprisals.
Some residents blame the M23 for the spate of kidnappings.
"The abductions were carried out by men wearing police uniforms, in the M23 territory. The M23 intelligence services are excellent, they know everything that is happening in their territory and their police forces are the only ones wearing uniforms in the area, so it has to be them," said a local religious leader, who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal from the rebel group.
Insecurity has increased since the M23 took control of the territory in July 2012, say residents who add that simply walking outside after dark is dangerous. Many have simply gone missing, they said.
In addition to the ransoms, the population must pay taxes now to M23 and many people have lost their jobs because Congolese government services have shut down. The area is experiencing a cash shortage, making everyday life a strain for many.
The M23 rebel group gets its name from the date of a March 23, 2009 peace accord which paved the way for fighters belonging to the now-defunct rebel group, the National Congress for the People, or CNDP, to join the ranks of the regular army. It was an imperfect solution to years of conflict in the troubled east of Congo, and until 2012, the accord was more or less respected. The ex-CNDP fighters, now wearing the uniform of the regular army, continued to control access to lucrative tin, tantalum and tungsten mines, as the Congolese government largely looked the other way in the interest of maintaining peace.
But starting on April 4, 2012, they began defecting from the regular army by the hundreds, citing their bad living conditions and claiming that the terms of the three-year-old agreement was not being respected. Country watchers, including investigators with the United Nations Group of Experts, believe the defections were prompted by changes inside the army which made it more difficult for the ex-rebels to continue their control of the mining trade.
Subsequent reports by the U.N. Group of Experts revealed that the M23 rebellion is being financed and orchestrated by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, through which the minerals are funneled. Last December the M23 fighters left their base in Rutshuru and pushed south, taking the crucial provincial capital of Goma for a few tense days, in the single-largest blow to the Congolese government in a decade.
They pulled back under intense international pressure on the rebels as well as on their alleged patron, Rwanda, which saw aid cut off from numerous European nations.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.