Congo Pushes for Extradition of Laurent Nkunda



(NY Times) Congo Presses for Extradition of Warlord: On Sunday, a bunch of former guerrilla fighters lounged around a hilltop army base, picking avocados and looking relaxed. Though their former commander, Gen. Laurent Nkunda, was captured Thursday by the Rwandan Army, the soldiers up here insisted that he was not in captivity but “in negotiations.”

“Don’t you worry,” Lt. Col. Seraphin Mirindi said. “Nkunda will be back.”

They could be right.

General Nkunda was one of Congo’s most powerful and unpredictable rebel leaders, a megalomaniac with proven military skill who, until his arrest along the Congo-Rwanda border, had single-handedly destabilized a large chunk of central Africa.

But he was also a close friend of Rwanda, and a keeper of many secrets.

Congo is now urging Rwanda to extradite him to stand trial for war crimes and treason charges. Many people here, in the green folds of eastern Congo where so much blood has been spilled, hope his capture could be the denouement of a conflict that has raged for years.

But there is a growing fear that General Nkunda’s arrest may end in an unsatisfying way and that Rwanda may not hand him over, partly because he knows too much.

On Sunday, the Rwandan military acknowledged for the first time that General Nkunda was being kept not in jail but at an undisclosed “safe” location in Rwanda.

The dynamic in eastern Congo is volatile, murky and hard to predict. Nearly every day brings a new surprise.

A few weeks ago, top rebel commanders suddenly split off from General Nkunda, a charismatic figure who until then had appeared to engender fierce loyalty. Thousands of Rwandan troops then stormed across the border as part of a joint mission with the Congolese Army to flush out Hutu militants left over from Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.

The latest twist came Thursday, when instead of attacking the Hutu militants, the Rwandans marched straight into General Nkunda’s territory and bundled him away.

At least that is what the Rwandans say, though some of General Nkunda’s former fighters say he was lured into Rwanda for a meeting and then either captured or told to go underground.

General Nkunda is Congolese but is widely seen as an agent for Rwanda’s extensive business and security interests in eastern Congo. Like Rwanda’s leaders, he is an ethnic Tutsi, and he began his military career as an intelligence officer for the Tutsi-led guerrilla force that now rules Rwanda.

He was there in the ranks of the guerrilla army in 1994 when the jet carrying Rwanda’s president, a Hutu, was mysteriously shot down, setting off the genocide.

He was there in eastern Congo when countless Hutus were massacred in reprisal killings, many of which have never been investigated.

He was also there in the early 2000s when, according to United Nations documents, the Rwandan military created a criminal network that exploited Congo’s vast mineral resources.

Just a few months ago, Rwandan officials were supplying arms and soldiers to General Nkunda, according to a recent United Nations report.

Rwanda’s leaders have been working closely with General Nkunda, said Charles Kabonero, the editor of Rwanda’s largest independent newspaper. “Would they hand over a man who has all those secrets?” he asked.

An adviser to Western governments on Congo issues, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said of General Nkunda: “The guy likes to talk. He’s totally uncontrollable. He’ll sing like a canary.”

The Rwandan military refuses to say what it will do with General Nkunda. Still, Maj. Jill Rutaremara, a spokesman for Rwanda’s Defense Forces, said he was not worried about what General Nkunda might reveal.

“Whatever we did in the past was open,” Major Rutaremara said.

Political pressure may be building inside Rwanda, especially among Tutsis, not to sell out General Nkunda, who is seen by many as a savior for Congolese Tutsis. On Sunday, there were reports of protests in western Rwanda by people upset by the arrest.

It is not clear what the Rwandans will do with him if he is not extradited. One option might be extended house arrest.

General Nkunda’s former fighters, though, do not seem especially fazed by the abrupt absence of the man they used to call “the chairman.” They said they were carrying out his wishes to join the national army.

“Nkunda will always be in our hearts,” Colonel Mirindi said.

The colonel seemed to make a point of joking with soldiers from the Congolese Army. The two sides, sworn enemies just a few weeks ago, are now eating, sleeping and patrolling together.

It is an awkward partnership, with a rebel force integrated into a national army that the rebels had essentially defeated. Many people suggest that although the rebels say they are now part of the army, their loyalties still lie with Rwanda.

“I don’t like them,” said Dunia Muhima, a government soldier who was standing within earshot of the colonel. “They’re Rwandans.” (source)