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Congolese Rebel Leaders Gave Guns to Civilians, Told Them to Pillage ‘Enemy’ Towns

Rebel commanders in eastern Congo provided guns to civilians and encouraged them to pillage towns that were predominantly populated by rival ethnic groups, a witness said today.

Witness P907, a former fighter with the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), said commanders of the group instructed civilians of the Hema ethnic group to loot “all items of great value” from vanquished towns. However, the civilians often exceeded those orders by engaging in combat and committing murder.

“Some civilians were involved in fighting. Some would break into houses and loot and even kill people within the houses,” said the former insider while testifying for the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecution in Bosco Ntaganda’s trial.

He said civilians acted as reinforcements to UPC troops during operations in Mongbwalu town, which was attacked on three separate occasions during 2002-2003. “When we attacked, the civilians would come with their machetes and spears to back up and support the soldiers,” said Witness P907.

These civilians did not fall under the group’s military command structures. However, through oral communications they were told to follow the soldiers and loot “everything” from homes and shops in besieged town.

“Each time we attacked, we were supposed to loot everything. The civilians were supposed to help carry the items such as vehicles, mattresses, televisions, radios and furniture,” said Witness P907.

He said civilians were instructed to move behind the troops and had orders to surrender to soldiers any property of “great value” that they seized. It was during such pillaging campaigns that these UPC-allied civilians broke into homes, pillaged, and committed murder, said the witness.

The witness said UPC commanders did not take measures to control the rampaging civilians. “The contrary happened. The commanders called upon the civilian population to come and loot. They informed the civilians the towns they could loot,” he said.

He said some soldiers had two or three weapons and, “from time to time they would give [guns] to the civilians.”

Ntaganda is on trial at the ICC for 18 charges – 15 counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity. The alleged crimes were committed during his tenure as the deputy chief of staff of the UPC between 2002 and 2003. At the time, the group was among several militia involved in ethnic conflict in Congo’s Ituri district.

When he first took the witness stand yesterday, Witness P907 testified that recruits in the group included children as young as 10 or 12 years. He also said commanders raped some of the female recruits, while others took female military personnel as their wives. The witness is testifying with protective measures.

Witness P907 continues his testimony on Thursday, April 28.