A protestor during a clash between opposition supporters and riot police in Kinshasa
KINSHASA, 28 Jul 2006 (IRIN) - A significant number of combatants from the various conflicts in Congo since 1996 have still not disarmed and many continue to destabilise the country, despite the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in 2002.
The worst violence in recent months took place in the northeastern district of Ituri where militias continue to fight for territory although, on Wednesday, a coalition of armed groups, the Mouvement revolutionnaire congolais, agreed to stop fighting during the elections.
Immediately south of Ituri, in North and South Kivu provinces, the United Nations estimates 9,500 of 17,500 foreign combatants refused to disarm and return home. Many are from Rwanda and are implicated in the 1994 genocide. Violence occurred in the area on Monday near the town of Rutshuru, North Kivu, when seven people were killed after gunmen fired on an election rally. However, Peter Swarbrick, the head of the disarmament section of the UN Mission in the DRC, MONUC, recently said the foreign combatants did not pose a serious military threat to the electoral process.
Farther south, again in the central part of Katanga Province, ongoing fighting between the army and Mai-Mai militias has left an estimated 170,000 people displaced. Yet many have recently started returning home and Daniel Augstburger, the head of DRC office for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said on Wednesday, "We expect that it will be safe for people there to vote."
One security concern that international officials do have is with the Congolese army. Fewer than one-third of the estimated 150,000 troops have been properly trained and many are still loyal to commanders who led them during the civil war.
According to a UN human-rights survey in the DRC between January and June, released on 27 July, the army was responsible for more than half of the reported 369 cases of abuse, including the arbitrary killing of civilians.
"The routine use of physical violence against civilians, including summary executions, beatings and rape is reported wherever the army is deployed," according to the survey.
President Joseph Kabila issued a decree in May stating that security for the election was the responsibility of the police, not the army, but this has not been respected. On 21 July, troops from his Special Guard for Presidential Safety, known as GSSP, were shown on local and international television beating demonstrators and shooting in the air.
The GSSP is loyal to Kabila while other political leaders are supported by other elements within the army or by separate militias.
In the east of the country, elements of the army are also undermining efforts to demobilise combatants, the director of MONUC's Human Rights Division, Fernando Castanon, said.
"Those who are demobilising are often threatened, arbitrarily arrested, illegally detained, treated in a cruel, inhuman and degrading manner, even killed by soldiers of the 81st and the 83rd brigades," he said.
A statement issued by a committee of ambassadors and the heads of international organisations based in Kinshasa, known as CIAT, called on the army to remain in its barracks "before, during and immediately after" the polling and expressed particular concern about the GSSP. CIAT made just one exception for special units in the army to continue to work with MONUC during the elections, to continue to disarm armed Congolese and foreign groups in Ituri and in the Kivu provinces.
Civilians in those areas worry about the behaviour of those soldiers. "They sometimes suspect us of being in the militias and harass us when we move around," Jean Androzo, one of 16,000 people at a camp for displaced people at Katoni near Bunia, said on Friday.
A question is whether the police can do better. Since 2003, at least 174,000 police have been trained - with support from France, Belgium and several African countries - to control political rallies and demonstrations. Yet police also used excessive force, according to MONUC's human-rights report for January to June. There has been "a significant increase in the number of violations linked to campaigning, including arbitrary arrest, illegal detention or violence by police against participants in demonstrations", MONUC said in the report.
MONUC's human-rights survey for June found evidence of the police, as well as the secret service, "repressing freedom of expression in [the provinces of] Maniema and Kasai Occidental". It also said there were "politically related human-rights violations reported in Kinshasa and several provinces as police use excessive force to repress political demonstrations".
UN officials in the DRC frequently complain to Congolese authorities. "Demonstrations are part of the political game, the response by police must be measured," said Ross Mountain, the Deputy Special Representative for the Secretary-General for the DRC.
[Countdown in Congo]