UN experts: More armed groups in Congo willing to surrender

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. experts say a growing number of armed groups in Congo appear willing to surrender under the right conditions following January's inauguration of opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi as president.

The experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against Congo said in a report to the Security Council circulated Thursday that "the apparent willingness of armed groups to demobilize should be seen as an opportunity to reduce violence and restore peace and security" in the country.

Nonetheless, the panel of experts said numerous local and foreign armed groups continue to pose "serious security threats" in Congo, attacking civilians and soldiers, and targeting army camps and depots in order to seize weapons and ammunition.

It focused on the Allied Democratic Forces rebel group, saying it has "regrouped and rebuilt its capacity," and continues to attack civilians and security forces and recruit children in northeast Congo where its activities have also hampered the response to the Ebola outbreak. The majority of ADF combatants were Ugandans, but the group also includes nationals from Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and other countries, it said.

The experts said the ADF's recent propaganda "suggested a willingness to be associated with other Islamist groups" but they found no evidence of direct collaboration with them.

Tshisekedi has said the Islamic State extremist group poses a threat to his nation, and the experts noted that IS claimed responsibility for an attack in Congo for the first time on April 16 — on a small Congolese army camp during which two soldiers and a civilian were killed.

The panel said armed groups also continue to finance their activities through illegal mining of gold and other minerals, citing specific instances where some Congolese government officials were involved in the diversion of minerals in violation of council resolutions.

The panel cited one smuggler arrested for transporting 169 kilograms of coltan, which is used in electronic products, which was concealed in his four-wheel-drive vehicle. The smuggler told the panel he paid a $1,200 bribe to the senior officer from the mining police who arrested him for his release and the merchandise. He said he was freed, but the officer kept the vehicle and "replaced the coltan with sand," the experts said.

On the positive side, the panel said that during interviews between January and March in eastern Congo's mineral-rich and volatile North Kivu and South Kivu provinces with dozens of combatants who were active or had recently surrendered it documented "an apparent willingness to demobilize" under varying conditions.

The experts said "the main drivers" the combatants cited for wanting to stop fighting were exhaustion, disillusionment, Congolese army operations against them, and the change to a new government. They also noted high expectations among the combatants of "livelihood support and employment, and to integration" into the army.

As preconditions, the panel said some combatants wanted the Congolese army to control areas where they surrendered, while others noted local violence "and called for investment in dialogue and mediation to accompany the process of surrender."

The panel called on Tshisekedi's government to "implement without delay a comprehensive disarmament, demobilization, integration and reintegration policy and program."

The program should provide "clarity on integration opportunities, with adequate resources" as well as safeguards to ensure that ex-combatants responsible for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law can be prosecuted, it said.

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