Last three Ituri warlords join Congolese army

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KINSHASA, Nov 6 (Reuters) The last three warlords from Congo's eastern Ituri district have joined the national army, drawing a line under a bloody ethnic conflict that killed tens of thousands of people, officials said today.

Peter Karim, Matthieu Ngudjolo, and ''Cobra'' Matata, the heads of the last remaining Ituri militia groups, were flown to the capital Kinshasa by Democratic Republic of Congo's UN peacekeeping mission to begin army training.

They were followed shortly afterwards by 13 of their top militia commanders.

Their surrender marks the final stage of an 18-month effort to pacify Ituri, where a local ethnic conflict which grew out of a broader 1998-2003 war killed more than 70,000 people.

''This signifies that progressively we are moving towards a return to stability in parts of the country where there has been recurring instability,'' said General Dieudonne Kayembe, the head of Congo's armed forces.

Congo held its first free democratic elections in four decades last year but swathes of the east, particularly the Kivu provinces south of Ituri, remain racked by violence.

The government opened UN-backed talks ahead of last July's polls to bring Ngudjolo, Karim and Matata out of the bush.

The three militia leaders signed a peace deal with the government in November 2006, promising to disarm in return for officers' commissions in the Congolese army.

However, a UN funded disarmament process was repeatedly delayed as the commanders regularly missed deadlines to surrender their troops.

Karim's Front of Nationalists and Integrationists (FNI), responsible for the murders of nine UN peacekeepers in 2005, continued to battle army and UN soldiers until February.

''The heads are here and they are sending their fighters in.

You may still have stragglers and criminal groups, but basically these were the last three armed groups in Ituri,'' said Kemal Saiki, spokesman for the UN mission.

All three men are accused of arbitrary killings, levying illegal taxes, looting villages, and using child soldiers.

As part of their surrender agreement, the government has promised to expand a 2003 amnesty deal to include acts they committed after the larger Congo war officially ended.

Two former Ituri warlords are currently on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Thomas Lubanga, former head of the Union of Congolese Patriots, is the defendant in the ICC's first ever trial.

Germain Katanga, who led the Patriotic Forces of Resistance of Ituri, was transferred to Th Hague court last month to face war crimes charges including murder, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers.

REUTERS NC SK RAI2326

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