MBANDAKA, Congo – MBANDAKA, Congo (AP) — Eric Nkumu Bunita went to war armed only with some water and herbs he believed would protect him from gunfire. The skinny 27-year-old's career as a fighter for Congo's newest rebel movement lasted a mere four weeks.
Captured after the group launched an attack on northwest Equateur's provincial capital, Nkumu can now only point to two gunshot wounds that mark his upper arm.
Congo's latest rebel movement, which Nkumu said is taking its orders from an exiled witchdoctor, is opening a new front in what was a relatively peaceful corner of this enormous Central African nation long brutalized by violent rebel groups.
An estimated 100 people have been killed and some 200,000 others have been displaced from their homes in more than six months of fighting in which the rebels have defeated Congolese army troops several times, according to the United Nations.
Experts say the country's new rebellion is gaining support from armed militants loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba, a warlord originally from Equateur province who is now facing trial at the International Criminal Court, as well as from disgruntled soldiers demobilized without benefits.
The unrest in Congo's poorest region began as a localized intertribal conflict in a decades-old dispute over fishing rights. Now a poisonous cocktail of local grievances in Equateur bodes ill for Congo as President Joseph Kabila demands that U.N. troops withdraw before the September 2011 presidential election.
John Holmes, the U.N. chief for humanitarian affairs, visited Mbandaka over the weekend and warned in an interview with The Associated Press that the premature withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping force known as MONUC could worsen the situation in Congo.
"If you withdraw that element of stability that is MONUC then other conflicts contained by the presence of MONUC may get out of control and you could find yourself in a much more dangerous situation," Holmes said.
Congo's military says the situation in Equateur province is "under control," downplaying the implications of attacks that have stretched the resources of the largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world and embarrassed the president.
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.
Adding to the misery, civilians in eastern Congo still face regular attacks from militia groups including Rwandan Hutus who perpetrated that country's 1994 genocide. The U.N. reports at least 8,300 rapes were committed against women in eastern Congo last year, averaging 160 rapes a week.
And in Congo's northeast, the brutal Lord's Resistance Army's more than 20-year insurgency in Uganda has spilled across the border spreading terror. Human rights groups blame the LRA for massacres during which victims were hacked to death with machetes and children were forced to kill other children.
The new group, which calls itself Nzobo Yalobo according to Nkumu, has fed off of grievances about Equateur province 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.
The name means "new military groups" in the Lingala language, with the plural hinting at a variety of different parties involved. It's also called the Independent Liberation Movement of the Allies. However, the Congolese government said the rebels are also known as Nzobo ya Lombo, or village bandits, and are led by the witchdoctor Ibrahim Mangbama.
One month ago, this new rebel group in Equateur attacked the provincial capital of Mbandaka, defeating a small force of U.N. peacekeepers guarding the airport and overcoming scores of Congolese army troops to plunder other strategic targets — the main administrative compound, the governor's office and the governor's residence.
One Ghanaian peacekeeper and a South African pilot at the airport were killed, the U.N. said. The government said nine insurgents, four soldiers and two police were killed. A human rights group and witnesses said it is not known how many civilians drowned as they overcrowded and upturned canoes in an attempt to flee across the river to neighboring Republic of Congo.
Government troops backed by U.N. peacekeepers retook the town the following day, according to Col. Polycarpe Boyongo. Soldiers executed at least 18 people accused of giving intelligence to the rebels, according to the Congolese branch of the African Association of Human Rights — charges denied by Boyongo.
One rebel said that Odjani — the son of witchdoctor — who led the attack on the airport told them they were to seize the provincial capital and then march all the way to Congo's capital of Kinshasa, some 550 miles southwest through near-impenetrable forest with no roads.
"(He) told us that ... his father will be president, he will be the general and we will be his soldiers," Nkumu said.
That dream of marching on Kinshasa may sound far-fetched, but stranger things have happened in Congo. Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, led an army backed by Uganda and Rwanda across a country the size of Western Europe in eight months in 1997 and ousted a 30-year dictatorship.
The Congolese branch of the African Association of Human Rights in part blames local frustration that has mounted in Equateur amid arrests and detentions of people associated with Bemba, another son of Equateur and former warlord who is standing trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The human rights group accuses Congo's government of aggravating the conflict that led to a rebellion, citing "the culpable indifference of the state in the face of cries of alarm from the population."
It also accuses President Joseph Kabila's political coalition of contributing to the destabilization of Equateur province by condoning a corrupt local administration and legitimizing local officials whom the group says came to power illegally in much-disputed elections.
Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende said that at least one provincial legislator and two national legislators are believed to have sponsored the rebels. But Mende said the rebels' motivations remain unclear and he accused the media of sensationalizing the unrest.
Nkumu said he decided to fight because his livestock had been killed by disease, he had no way to support his two younger brothers and Odjani promised money to anyone who helped take Mbandaka.
"I have nothing so I had nothing to lose," he told The Associated Press from outside an impromptu prison where soldiers are holding 65 alleged rebels including 18 minors.