AF-Congo-Fighting 4thLd-Writethru 11-24
Refugees: Troops go on looting spree at Congo camp
Eds: UPDATES with U.N. envoy saying Nkunda seeks peace deal that protects minorities. Audio slideshow available in —international/congo—refugees folder.
AP Photo XJD104, XJD109, XJD114, XJD207
By ANITA POWELL
Associated Press Writer
KIBATI, Congo (AP) — Government soldiers went on an overnight looting and shooting spree in a sprawling Congolese refugee camp, stealing from hungry and traumatized people who have fled fighting with rebels in the country’s east, witnesses said Monday.
They said one woman was killed by a stray bullet Sunday night in Kibati, a village north of the eastern provincial capital of Goma that has been overrun by about 70,000 refugees.
Patrice Sebahunde, 60, said he was awakened at 10 p.m. by four soldiers pointing guns in his face. They took his family’s food, clothes and their plastic water bucket.
"They came up, pointed a gun at me, and said, ’Wake up, wake up, give us money and everything you have,"’ Sebahunde said.
Bernard Udafuye said his house also was looted by soldiers Sunday night who stole food and a bucket but he did not blame them.
"It was just an accident, that they stole from us," he said. "They are hungry."
Years of sporadic violence in eastern Congo intensified in August, and some 250,000 people have fled their homes to escape combat between the army and fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.
Nkunda says he is protecting ethnic Tutsis from Hutus who fled to Congo from Rwanda after that country’s 1994 genocide, but his critics contend he is more interested in power and Congo’s mineral wealth.
In New York, a U.N. envoy said Nkunda has expressed willingness to negotiate with the government on a peace deal that would integrate his fighters into the army while enacting protections for Tutsis and other ethnic minorities in Congo.
The mediator, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, said that he did not consider Nkunda’s demands "outrageous" and that he was confident the two sides could resolve their differences if they held talks.
Some fear that if the conflict is not resolved the fighting could again draw in neighboring countries. Congo’s 1998-2002 war split the vast nation into rival fiefdoms and involved armies from a half dozen African states.
Witnesses to Sunday’s looting said soldiers shot in the air and a stray bullet hit a 45-year-old woman in the head, killing her instantly. A 20-year-old woman was killed at Kibati on Thursday night when a bullet pierced her tent and hit her in the head.
U.N. refugee officials, who had reported Thursday’s shooting, said they had no information about any violence Sunday.
"Shooting is not something you can easily hide," said spokesman David Nthegwe, who added that a 2-year-old girl died of sickness, possibly malaria, at the camp Sunday night. "Our information on the ground last night says there was no looting and nobody was killed."
But at least 10 witnesses who spoke separately to The Associated Press told the same story.
"Last night soldiers came here to the camp to cause trouble," said Maria Mukawera, 47. "They came to steal. They started shooting in the air. I saw it with my own eyes."
Sunday’s rampage followed an afternoon showdown between soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers outside the camp.
Soldiers stopped the peacekeepers’ convoy at an impromptu roadblock and dragged 23 Congolese men off the trucks, accusing them of being rebels. U.N. officials said the men were rebels who had surrendered as well as national policemen and civilians.
During the incident, people hurled stones at the peacekeepers’ vehicles, angry at the organization’s failure to protect them. One peacekeeper was injured, U.N. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
Dietrich said Sunday there were 10 surrendered rebels among the 23 and that they were to have been turned over to the military Monday. "But because of this incident, it was agreed on the spot to hand them over."
On Monday, Dietrich said he did not know where those detained had been taken. He said the U.N. was still gathering information.
"I think this is the first time a normal convoy carrying former rebels and militia has been stopped," he said. "We are not happy about what happened. There is a lot of anger, frustration and so forth."
Nkunda accuses the peacekeepers of siding with the soldiers.
The U.N. mandate orders the peacekeepers to give support to Congo’s army — a ragtag, poorly paid collection of the defeated army of ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and several of the rebel groups that helped overthrow him, including fighters of current President Joseph Kabila.
A quarter of a million people have been displaced in eastern Congo since August, when the latest round of fighting between the rebels and the government began.