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Colonel Says Bemba’s Troops Operated Independently

War crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Congolese troops operated independently of the army of the Central African Republic (CAR) during their deployment in that country, a witness said today.

Colonel Thierry Lengbe, who has served with the military in Bangui since 1987, stated that only one operation was undertaken jointly by the accused’s forces and the Central African army, the Forces Armées Centrafricaines (FACA).

“There was just one operation on the 27th [October 2002] to push back Bozizé’s men beyond PK13. There were no other joint operations,” explained Colonel Lengbe, who is also known as Witness 31.

The suburb of PK 13, or Point Kilomètre 13, is among those which saw sustained fighting between the rebel forces of François Bozizé and the national army during the conflict of October 2002-March 2003.

The witness also asserted that the radio equipment of the FACA could not communicate with that which Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters took along to the country.

The assertion by Colonel Lengbe that the Congolese fighters acted independently tends to undermine Mr. Bemba’s contention that his soldiers who were deployed in the CAR were not under his command but that of the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé. The president invited the fighters from the neighboring country to assist him in fighting off a coup attempt.

Mr. Bemba, a Congolese national, is charged with three counts of war crimes (rape, murder, and pillaging) and two crimes against humanity (rape and murder). Prosecutors allege that he failed to control or to punish his troops who brutalized Central African civilians.

Under questioning by prosecution lawyer Bärbel Schmidt, Colonel Lengbe stated that following the insurgency, as the assistant to the army chief of staff, he set up the Center for Command Operations (CCOP), which coordinated all military operations against the insurgents.

Colonel Lengbe said that through this center, the FACA forces kept the rebels at bay for two days before the arrival of the Congolese helpers. By October 27, 2002, the number of MLC soldiers in the country was “quite sizeable.” These troops were commanded by General Mustafa Mukiza who was deputized by Captain René Abongo, he said. According to him, the Congolese troops arrived with their weapons and communication equipment.

The Colonel added that he only spent a month at the CCOP before leaving the army and going into exile in November 2002. He has since returned to the national army.

The trial continues to hear Colonel Lengbe’s testimony on Monday morning.