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Another Former Central African Soldier Defends Bemba

Today, another former military officer in the army of the Central African Republic (CAR) stated that Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troops were integrated into that country’s army during the 2002-2003 armed conflict.

Testifying for the defense in Mr. Bemba’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), ‘Witness D04-09’ said the accused’s soldiers were paired up with Central African soldiers before carrying out joint operations against insurrectionists.

“You would have about 40 soldiers from our country and about 60 soldiers from our brothers in arms from across the river,” said the witness.

Each group comprising soldiers from the local army and Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) was assigned a specific task related to taking back neighborhoods in the capital Bangui, which rebels had captured in an October 25, 2002 coup attempt.

The witness recalled the arrival of a group of MLC troops at a camp where he was posted during October 28-29, 2002. After their arrival, Ferdinand Bombayake, head of the country’s presidential guard, assembled all soldiers based at the camp and introduced to them the Congolese “brothers in arms.”

“We were not supposed to line up by ourselves. The idea was to mix up the soldiers, so one Central African soldier stood next to a person from the other side,” he said. Weapons and uniforms were distributed to the local and foreign soldiers.

Each mixed group, which comprised of about 100 soldiers, had its own commander who, according to the witness, was a Central African national that “was very familiar with the hills and paths that had to be taken in the operations.” Once operations started, he said, General Bombayake remained the overall commander of operations.

“Were you able to communicate with the soldiers from the other side of the river?” asked defense lawyer Peter Haynes.

The witness said the MLC soldiers spoke the Congolese language Lingala, but he understood some of what they said and was able to conduct brief exchanges with them. ‘Witness D04-09’ testified remotely with his image and voice distorted in order to conceal his identity.

Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of Congo, is on trial for allegedly failing to rein in his soldiers who allegedly brutalized Central African civilians. He denies the charges. He contends that he did not maintain command over his soldiers deployed on foreign soil and that Chadian or Libyan soldiers, or any of the numerous local ethnic militia that took part in the conflict, could have committed the rape, murder, and pillaging prosecutors blame on his soldiers.

Earlier defense witnesses have also testified that Mr. Bemba did not command his troops who were deployed in the CAR for five months. They said local commanders loyal to then president Ange-Félix Patassé commanded the foreign soldiers. However, the prosecution presented witnesses who stated that besides one joint operation with Mr. Patassé’s United Presidential Security (USP), the Congolese troops operated independently.

Meanwhile, earlier today, ‘Witness D04-02’ completed giving evidence in the trial. This witness, also a former member of the Central African armed forces, started testifying yesterday and told the court that rebel fighters, not Mr. Bemba’s troops, were responsible for crimes against civilians.

The trial continues to hear testimony from ‘Witness D04-09’ tomorrow morning.