Militiamen still taxing civilians despite leader joining army

Fighters allied to a former militia leader, who has been integrated into the national Congolese army, continue to tax civilians in the volatile northeastern district of Ituri, a local chief has said.

The Front des nationalistes et intégrationnistes (FNI) militiamen, whose leader - Peter Karim - was made a colonel in the national army in October, have targeted civilians in Walendu Pitsi in Djugu Territory, their stronghold.

"At least [US] $1,400 is being collected in monthly taxes from markets in Bale, Dhera and Libi," the chief, who declined to be named, said on Thursday. These markets are nearly 110 km northeast of Bunia, the main town in Ituri.

"Indeed, he [Karim] has just telephoned me asking for 20 litres of fuel," the chief said. "I must give it to him."

The chief said Karim called him "a few days ago", asking for money for his men's rations. "He asks for this yet we control only two out of the seven collectives in Walendu Pitsi," he said.

The spokesman for the commander of the army in Ituri, Brig-Gen Nsiona Mbuayamba, Captain Charles Boyeka, said: "Peter Karim continues to move with his men and his position, in spite of the agreement which he signed to remain in his position.

"By collecting the taxes Peter Karim is being irksome."

Marcel Dirokpa, a resident of Kpandroma, a commercial centre 135 km northeast of Bunia, said Karim was taxing civilians because he needed to feed and dress his 3,000 men. Kpandroma is also the centre where Karim's men obtain food supplies.

However, a local teacher, Justin Mateso, said: "We appreciate his [Karim's] order asking that civilians are not disturbed during the election period since he is now an officer in the army." A second round of presidential elections is scheduled for Sunday, with President Joseph Kabila facing off against one of the country's four vice-presidents, Jean-Pierre Bemba.

"Karim guarantees the safety of the agents of the Independent Electoral Commission," Henri Dods, an electoral official, said. "They [Karim's men] accompany them everywhere in the zones under his control."

The government appointed Karim a colonel in the army in a bid to establish state authority in Ituri and pacify the country.

"What is surprising is that in the zones under Karim's control there are no security problems," Dods said. "On the contrary, we receive complaints in certain zones under the control of the army."

Electoral commission officials have said all electoral material had been deployed in the area without problems.

"Peter Karim even gave an order for his people to leave the bush and rebuild their destroyed homes," Jerome Dejju, an official in the Djugu electoral commission liaison office, said.

The chief said: "Actually, Karim is good but the problem is his troops are often drunk and drugged. From time to time they block the roads interfering with commerce."

Political observers in Bunia have said Karim is awaiting the outcome of Sunday's elections to decide his fate.

"With the crimes he committed, including the assassination and kidnapping of United Nations peacekeepers and the recruitment of child soldiers, he is always afraid," Nicolas Mapendo, a journalist in Bunia, said.

Ituri and the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu have remained volatile - due to activity by militiamen and other armed groups - despite the official declaration of an end to civil war in the country in 2003 and the subsequent installation of a transitional government. Sunday's elections will mark the end of the transition, in a country holding democratic elections for the first time in 45 years.

General Mbuayamba Nsiona, Commander of the Congolese army in Ituri

In September, Mbuayamba said some militias were re-arming and fighting again, despite undertakings given to the government in July to demobilise their combatants and hand over weapons. He said the militias were re-arming and recruiting in the north and east of Bunia while others to south of Bunia were becoming increasingly belligerent.

He said Karim and his 3,000 militiamen were based 120 km north of Bunia at Nioka, and were responsible for the abduction of seven UN peacekeepers in May.

"We have information that Peter Karim continues to conscript women, children and men into his ranks so that he has the 6,000 combatants he needs to be given the rank of general once he is reintegrated into the national army, an official in the UN Mission to the DRC (MONUC), who asked not to be named, said then.