Congolese troops belonging to war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s rebel group looted property from the government of the Central African Republic (CAR), according to witness testimony heard today.
“When they came into the center of Damara [town] to occupy that place, they did not spare any building, any property that belonged to private individuals or the government,” stated ‘witness 209.’ He explained that after Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers dislodged General François Bozizé’s rebel troops from Damara on December 7, 2002, “the properties and other assets of the government were looted systematically – mattresses, vehicles belonging to the government, motorcycles, nothing was spared.”
The witness was responding to prosecuting lawyer Massimo Scaliotti, who had asked whether the MLC also looted property belonging to the CAR government. Some previous witnesses have recounted how Central African soldiers engaged in a shoot-out with the MLC, as the latter sought to transport war loot to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The trial has been told that the local army at some stage managed to confiscate looted property from Mr. Bemba’s soldiers, and as a result, the Congolese fighters staged numerous retaliatory attacks against CAR civilians.
Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly failing to rein in his fighters who murdered, raped, and killed during their stay in the CAR between October 2002 and March 2003. He has pleaded not guilty. At the time the MLC went to the neighboring country, they were a rebel group fighting to topple the Congolese government. Under a 2003 peace deal, Mr. Bemba became one of the vice presidents of the DRC, and several of his fighters were integrated into the Congolese national army.
‘Witness 209’ today told Mr. Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) that MLC troops in the CAR comprised of former soldiers under ex-Congolese president Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as ill-trained and low ranking fighters who he said were the ones referred to as ‘Banyamulenge.’ Mr. Mobutu led Congo between 1965 and 1997.
Previous witnesses have used the term ‘Banyamulenge’ to refer to all MLC soldiers who were in the CAR at the time of the 2002-2003 conflict. But ‘witness 209’ said the term referred to the lowly soldiers who “were wearing rubber boots and clothes that were much too large for them.”
He explained, “Former Mobutu soldiers dressed like soldiers but the Banyamulenge wore all kinds of dressing. Former soldiers of Mobutu had ranger boots but the [Banyamulenge] were wearing rubber boots, and that is something you don’t see in a regular army.”
The witness testified only briefly before going to see a doctor over what Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner described as “an urgent appointment.” At the start of today’s hearing, ‘witness 209’ reported that he had two teeth extracted yesterday and that he was therefore not feeling very well.
The trial is scheduled to resume on Monday morning.