KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo’s army has despatched hundreds of reinforcements to the east of the country after hundreds of soldiers abandoned their posts and at least 10 were killed in clashes between factions within the army, officials said on Thursday.
The troubled Kivu provinces have been in a state of high alert since the weekend after troops linked to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda - now a general in the Congolese army - started abandoning their posts amid rumours of his imminent arrest for alleged war crimes.
Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court and Congo has come under pressure to arrest him. But Kinshasa has so far refused, saying his influence with former rebels remains central to maintaining the relative peace in the east.
A Reuters witness at Goma’s airport saw hundreds of soldiers arriving by plane late on Wednesday but it was not immediately clear where they would be deployed to.
A spokesman for the army in Goma said the troops were there to restore calm. “They are not here to create war, but to prevent it,” Major Olivier Hamuli told Reuters.
The authorities in Kinshasa said on Thursday a “madness” had swept the troubled eastern provinces in recent days, and called for “out of control” soldiers to return to order.
The Kivus saw some of the worst violence during Congo’s two wars, which killed millions, and localised rebellions continued there for years after the official end to conflict in 2003.
Ntaganda, accused of war crimes committed during fighting elsewhere in Congo’s conflict, has been central to a fragile peace since 2009. But the process of integrating former rebels into Congo’s army has been fraught with delays and parallel chains of command remain.
Colonel Sylvain Ekenge, a spokesman for the army in Kinshasa, said 500 soldiers abandoned their base in Pinga in North Kivu, allowing it to be seized by Rwandan FDLR rebels, who then advanced to within 2 km of Masisi, a major town.
On Wednesday fighting broke out between soldiers loyal to the government and deserters in the South Kivu town of Uvira, with residents reporting several hours of heavy weapons fire.
Colonel Delphin Kahimbi, who commands operations in the east, said around 10 deserters had been killed in the clash but said the situation had been brought under control.
Ntaganda’s former rebel group CNDP, now a political party, issued a statement blaming unnamed politicians and army officers of trying to stir up trouble and re-committed to peace.
Jason Stearns, an independent Congo analyst, said the rumours of Ntaganda’s possible arrest appear to have provoked a attempted show of force by soldiers loyal to him.
“It seems to me there was some sabre rattling about Bosco (Ntaganda) getting arrested... There’s been a lot of talk that he escalated things,” Stearns said.
Ntaganda’s co-accused, Thomas Lubanga, was last month the first person found guilty by the ICC of recruiting child soldiers.
Editing by David Lewis