A prosecution witness today told former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba’s trial that rebels led by current Central African president François Bozizé were the first to plunder government property before the accused’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers joined the pillaging spree.
Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly failing to control his soldiers who raped, murdered, and pillaged during their expedition to the Central African Republic (CAR) between October 2002 and March 2003. His forces were in that country to support its then president Ange-Félix Patassé fight off a coup attempt orchestrated by Mr. Bozizé.
In today’s few moments when ‘Witness 209’ was cross-examined by the defense in open session, he described the actions of the Bozizé rebels upon their arrival in the town of Damara. Testifying with protective measures, including voice and image distortion, the witness recalled that Bozizé’s rebels first arrived in Damara on October 25, 2002 as they attempted to advance on the country’s capital Bangui. He said when the rebels met resistance, they retreated from Damara on October 27, 2002.
“That day when they came back, the entire town of Damara was under their control,” said the witness. He added that the rebels were present in numerous other towns including Sibut and “all along the road all the way to Chad.”
According to the witness, when the Bozizé rebels took control of these areas, civilians fled like “birds” into the bush because they were afraid. However, he emphasized that Bozizé’s forces did not commit any crimes against civilians.
“When they [Bozizé’s rebels] stayed, they did not touch the possessions of inhabitants,” said the witness. “They did not touch other people’s wives. They restricted themselves to the possessions and property of the government.”
Asked by defense lawyer Peter Haynes what government property the Bozizé rebels ransacked, the witness replied that it included sub-prefecture offices, the mayor’s office, and the communication office of the Gendarme.
“Doors were broken down, motor bikes, and cycles belonging to the government were taken away,” stated ‘witness 209.’
On Monday this week, ‘witness 209’ told the trial that MLC soldiers dislodged the Bozizé rebels from Damara on December 7, 2002 and then went on to “systematically” loot government property including mattresses, vehicles, and motorcycles.
However, in today’s testimony he said the looting of government forces was started by Mr. Bozizé’s fighters. “All those things happened before the Banyamulenge [MLC] arrived. What I know is that Bozizé soldiers broke doors to administrative buildings as well as official residences occupied by civil servants,” said the witness.
He said homes whose occupants were not thought to be supporters of Mr. Patassé’s regime were not attacked.
The trial resumes on Monday next week with the defense continuing its cross-examination of ‘witness 209.’