Dozens of armed rebels have entered the city of Bunia in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in an apparent show of force in protest against their treatment during a continuing peace process and to demand the release of jailed fellow fighters.
Wearing white headbands to distinguish each other, the fighters from the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) armed group on Friday morning surrounded the prison to push for the release of their comrades.
“They are in front of the central prison and are demanding the release of their men,” Governor Jean Bamanisa told AFP news agency. “They are negotiating. We are trying to calm them.”
Bamanisa said the men were from a faction of the CODECO which “unilaterally wants to end hostilities”.
Drawn largely from the Lendu ethnic group, CODECO is accused by the United Nations of widespread and systematic killings, beheadings, rape and other acts that may amount to war crimes.
In July the government sent several former rebel commanders, including one just released after more than a decade in prison in The Hague and the DRC for war crimes, to convince CODECO fighters to surrender.
Some elements of CODECO agreed to a unilateral ceasefire in August, although it remains unclear if that would stop the violence since the group split into several competing factions in March after the army killed its leader.
“We don’t know if it’s theatre or what in Ituri (province). The CODECO militiamen came with weapons in full view of everyone,” said Jean Bosco Lalo, president of a civil rights group in the province.
Army spokesman Jules Ngongo said the situation in Bunia was under control: “They are harmless, only asking that they be taken care of by the 36th military region and seek the release of their fellow prisoners.”
Videos circulating on social media showed Congolese soldiers holding back crowds of people as the fighters posed with guns and rocket launchers. No violence was reported.
Bamanisa’s deputy, Gracien de Saint-Nicolas, said: “We will not allow blood to be spilt in Bunia. The CODECO is Congolese and ready to give up arms but you are not facilitating the task for them to be reintegrated into the peace process.”
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Nairobi, said the fighters were urging the government to keep its promises in line with the provisional peace deal.
“The army has been fighting this armed group since the beginning of the year without much success. That is how these prisoners were taken,” he said.
“The militiamen in the town also demand food rations. They say they have been promised this by the government as part of a provisional peace deal. They also say this peace deal would allow some of the militiamen to be integrated into the army,” Webb also said.