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Central African Officials Provided Arms to Bemba’s Soldiers

Today, the 27th witness called by prosecutors in the trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court (ICC) started giving evidence.

Going by the pseudonym ‘Witness 178,’ he recounted the arrival of Mr. Bemba’s troops into the Central African Republic (CAR) capital of Bangui. The witness also spoke of the ethnic composition of the fighters in Mr. Bemba’s group and how they received their arms once they were in the neighboring country.

According to the witness, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops arrived in Bangui on October 27, 2002. They were then given weapons and military uniforms by Central African authorities. The witness could not estimate the number of MLC soldiers that arrived in the city.

He said the “military uniforms” given to Mr. Bemba’s troops had red, black, and green patches. The weapons were Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga, ‘Witness 178’ also stated that MLC officers received communication devices from the CAR government in order to facilitate their operations. He explained that instructions and orders to foot soldiers were conveyed by word of mouth. It was only high-ranking MLC officers who doubled as operations commanders that used the communication devices. The witness did not say how he became aware of the group’s mode of communication.

‘Witness 178’ testified with image and voice distortion and gave most of his testimony in closed session.

The witness testified that the MLC had fighters of various ethnicities. According to him, Central African youngsters belonging to the Mbaka ethnic group joined Mr. Bemba’s group. Amongst themselves, these youngsters spoke Lingala, a native Congolese language. However, they were also able to express themselves in Sango and Mbaka, two of the dialects spoken in the CAR.

The witness said, “Fifty per cent of these [MLC] troops were of the Mbaka ethnicity, 40 per cent Congolese and 10 per cent Rwandans.” The Mbaka people are found both in the CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“How could a Central African recognize a member of the MLC from other soldiers on the ground?” asked Mr. Badibanga.

Besides speaking Lingala, said the witness, the Congolese soldiers could be recognized on the basis of their clothing and their accent. Most of the Congolese soldiers wore “plastic boots” and “used makeup.”

Mr. Bemba, a former Congolese vice president, is on trial for allegedly failing to control his soldiers as they rampaged in Bangui and other Central African towns between October 2002 and March 2003. He has pleaded not guilty to two crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging).

The trial is scheduled to continue on Thursday, September 1, with further testimony from ‘Witness 178.’