Congo rebels split over dismissal of president

Feb 28, 2013, 9:29 AM EST
n this Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, Jean-Marie Runiga, center, then president of Congo's M23 rebel group, walks with his security guards near the Congo-Uganda border town of Bunagana.
(AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

GOMA, Congo (AP) — The president of the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo has been dismissed by the group's military leader over accusations that he is supporting Bosco Ntaganda, a wanted war criminal, said a spokesperson of the M23 Thursday.

"Jean-Marie Runiga gave Bosco Ntaganda financial support to recruit military personnel. He has also been compromising the peace process in order to protect Ntaganda. We say it is not acceptable and General Sultani Makenga dismissed him yesterday," said Bertrand Bisimwa, an M23 spokesman.

The move has split the M23 as a new group has been formed by those who still support Runiga, including Gen. Baudoin Ngaruye, the second-ranked military leader of the group.

"President Runiga was not dismissed, it was a unilateral decision made by Makenga," said Col. Seraphin Mirindi, who has been appointed spokesperson of the new M23 faction. "The army supports President Runiga and we do not want to follow Makenga who is conniving with the government in Kinshasa to destabilize us."

Runiga and Gen. Ngaruye in are presently in Kibumba, 12 kilometers (7 miles) from Goma airport, while Makenga is in Tchanzu, near the Ugandan border, said Mirindi. Ngaruye controls an estimated 2,000 men, twice as many as Makenga, said Mirindi.

The M23, which is allegedly backed by Rwanda, seized eastern Congo's strategic city of Goma in November 2012. The rebels withdrew from the capital of North Kivu a few weeks later after the Congolese government agreed to negotiate with them. However the rebels kept their positions just outside Goma, within 2 kilometers (1 mile) of the city's airport which is guarded by United Nations peacekeepers.

The M23 has fought against the Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila for nearly a year. The M23 is made up of soldiers and officers who defected from the Congolese army, complaining that the government did not implement the terms of a peace accord signed on March 23, 2009. The rebels take their name from the date of that agreements.

Tensions between the two M23 factions began when Gen. Makenga took the decision to withdraw the M23 troops from Goma after it conquered the city in November. While Makenga wanted to start negotiations with the government, President Jean-Marie Runiga wanted the M23 to keep control of Goma.

On Sunday, the feud deepened as fighting erupted in Rutshuru, the M23 stronghold, when an M23 major was assassinated in a local bar. Although the M23 officially said that the FDLR, a Hutu armed group, was responsible for the attack, other sources say the shooting was the result of an M23 internal dispute that degenerated into a firefight.

Col. Vianney Kazarama, a supporter of Makenga, said that Bosco Ntaganda is in Kibumba as well. "We are looking for a way to arrest him, he is a war criminal, and we ask for the international community's support," he said.

Col. Mirindi denied that Bosco Ntaganda is in Kimbuba.

Bosco Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The United States government recently placed a bounty of 5 million dollars for capturing him alive, according to diplomatic sources. Since its creation, the M23 has officially denied having Ntaganda in it ranks.

Makenga's faction appeared eager to assert its wish to resume negotiations with the Congolese government.

"Now we can peacefully go on with the negotiations since we are got rid of the person who was compromising them," said M23 spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa, speaking on the phone from Kampala where the negotiations are being held.

Runiga's faction on the other hand, appeared to be getting ready to fight again.

"If the Congolese army keeps on trying to occupy M23 positions, we will attack back and we will chase them as far as is necessary," said Col. Seraphin Mirindi.

Few government troops came back to Goma after the M23 left the town, leaving the city vulnerable to a return of the M23, despite the U.N. presence. The U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MONUSCO, has a limited mandate which only allows the peacekeepers to fight alongside the Congolese army or in the event of a direct physical threat on the population.

On Sunday, the 11 central Africa leaders and the U.N. signed an agreement to try to establish peace in eastern Congo. But the agreement had few concrete details on how this would be achieved.