By David Smith in Johannesburg
Human Rights Watch says renegade general Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by ICC, receives recruits and arms from Rwanda.
Rwanda denies backing the mutiny in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo where fighting between government forces and troops loyal to Ntaganda has raged for two months, sending tens of thousands of villagers fleeing for safety.
Anneke Van Woudenberg, HRW’s senior Africa researcher, said: “The role played by some Rwandan military officials in supporting and harbouring an ICC war crimes suspect can’t just be swept under the rug.
“Rwanda should immediately stop all support to Ntaganda and assist in his arrest.”
Rwanda has a history of supporting armed groups in neighbouring Congo, citing a need to pursue Rwandan rebel fighters linked to the country’s 1994 genocide. It has also faced accusations of contributing to the ongoing violence and pillaging the region’s vast mineral wealth.
The US-based HRW said Rwandan army officials had recruited as many as 300 fighters in Rwanda and sent them across the border to fight for Ntaganda in recent weeks, stoking an upsurge in violence.
The recruits included civilians forcibly recruited in Musanze and Rubavu districts in Rwanda, some of whom were children aged under 18. Witnesses said some recruits were summarily executed on the orders of Ntaganda’s forces when they tried to escape.
One Rwandan, forcibly recruited into Ntaganda’s forces and who later escaped, told HRW: “I saw six people who were killed because they tried to flee. They were shot dead, and I was ordered to bury their bodies. All of us wanted to flee to the government troops, but many of us didn’t know how and we were scared.”
In another case, a witness told HRW that a colonel ordered him to kill three people who had tried to flee and were caught. “We killed them with the agapfuni (small hammer). We tied them up first and then killed them. One was about 25 years old, one 18, and the third about 20. Four of us got the order to kill them. Then we buried them there in Runyoni.”
Rwanda’s military has also provided Kalashnikov assault rifles, grenades, machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery and ammunition to the rebels, who are currently holed up on three hills a few miles from the Rwandan border, the campaign group said in a report.
The mutiny is led by fighters from Ntaganda’s former rebel group the CNDP, which was integrated into the Congolese national army in 2009 as part of a peace deal.
Last week, the political wing of CNDP pulled out of an alliance with Congolese president Joseph Kabila, which it joined as part of the 2009 peace process, and officially allied itself with the rebels – now known as M23.
Ntaganda was spotted talking to a Rwandan military officer by witnesses in the Rwandan town of Kinigi on 26 May, according to HRW.
The report did not go as far as explicitly accusing the Rwandan government of approving support within the military for the rebels, but called on Kigali to ensure it was stopped.
Van Woudenberg added: “Permitting Ntaganda to move in and out of Rwanda without fear of arrest sends a message that Rwanda is not serious about helping deliver justice to victims of the war crimes he and his troops have committed.
“Rwanda’s allies should insist that Rwanda help end impunity in the region, not encourage it.”
Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, last week accused HRW and other non-state actors of trying to destabilise the region and of spreading false rumours over its involvement in the rebellion. She described the allegations as “simplistic, irresponsible and dangerous”.
The Congolese government has said it and Rwanda are jointly investigating the claims, which risk seriously damaging relations between the two countries.