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Witness Says Locals Offered MLC Fighters ‘Heartfelt Thanks’

The seventeenth witness to testify for Jean-Pierre Bemba today said residents of the Central African town of Sibut offered “genuinely heartfelt” thanks to the accused’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters after they “liberated” the town from rebel control.

Defense lawyer Aime Kilolo-Musamba screened footage in which residents of the town described brutal crimes suffered at the hands of rebel forces led by François Bozizé, who occupied the town before they were dislodged by the MLC.

‘Witness D04-21’ said the footage was filmed in the presence of an MLC “ambassador” who had gone to the Central African Republic (CAR) to establish the truth in rumors that the accused’s militia had carried out rapes, murders, and pillaging.

The witness said that as indicated in the video footage, allegations that Mr. Bemba’s soldiers were the perpetrators of crimes in Sibut were untrue. In the footage, the mayor of Sibut stated that he and fellow residents had fled their homes for three months during a rebel occupation of the town that begun in October 2002.

The mayor recounted numerous verbal complaints he had received from civilians, of looting, rape, and murders committed by Mr. Bozizé’s rebel fighters. Also in the footage, giving similar accounts to that of the mayor, were the vicar of a seminary and other unnamed residents. All of them expressed their thanks to “loyalist forces” comprised of the MLC and the Central African army for driving out the rebels and helping them to return to their normal lives.

Sibut is one of the locations where International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors charge that Mr. Bemba’s troops committed widespread rape, murder, and pillaging against Central African civilians between October 2002 and March 2003. The Congolese troops were in the country to help forces loyal to then president Ange-Félix Patassé to fight off a rebel insurgency led by Mr. Bozizé.

It is for these alleged crimes that Mr. Bemba, as commander-in-chief of the MLC, is on trial at the court based in The Hague. He has denied all five charges against him, accusing other groups involved in the fighting, such as those led by Mr. Bozizé, of perpetuating the abuses.

The witness started testifying yesterday. His evidence is being heard by way of video link from an undisclosed location. He has testified that MLC soldiers were well trained and adhered to a strict code of conduct. He also stated that the command of the group’s operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo was not single-handedly undertaken by Mr. Bemba. Rather, it was “teamwork” coordinated by the general staff, an organ of the group.

‘Witness D04-21’ continues to give testimony tomorrow morning.