12 August 2007

Uganda: Congo Troops Occupy Country's Territory

Ntoroko — The Congolese armed forces have now occupied all of the disputed Rukwanzi Island on Lake Albert, a move likely to further escalate tensions with Uganda.

Bundibugyo District Chairman Jackson Bambalira said he had heard that "now the Congo army has occupied the whole island and are chasing Ugandans away and making them pay visa fees".

Rukwanzi, an island north of Ntoroko County of Bundibugyo District and sitting on the southern part of Lake Albert, was at the heart of a fire-fight between DR Congo government troops and Ugandan forces on August 3, which left a British contractor dead.

Carl Nefdt worked for Heritage Oil, one of two companies prospecting for oil in the area. He died when Congolese forces attacked a Heritage Oil barge - a long boat with a flat bottom, used for carrying heavy loads on rivers or canals - on Lake Albert.

They claimed the barge was on the Congolese side of the border.

Although the attack was on the barge floating on water, the island was quickly sucked into the picture because it provides a good staging ground for oil exploration and abundant fishing both in the lake and River Semiliki.

Defence ministers of the two countries failed to agree on where the island lies and whether the barge had crossed the international border during last Wednesday's meeting in Entebbe.

Rukwanzi is now "a disputed territory between Uganda and DRC", Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga said on Friday. "We think it is ours and those guys think it is theirs but we are discussing it." Another senior government official said: "This issue is serious and we do not foresee any agreement on it in the near future."

A few weeks ago, Rukwanzi was inhabited by about 1,000 people, mainly Congolese fishermen. That number has now increased following the beefing up of Congolese troops at a military detachment they reportedly first established in 1993.

This action by the Congolese army comes in the wake of several futile attempts by local Uganda government officials to have a joint border verification exercise carried out.

Mr Bambalira, said that they had "called upon the Congolese officials to come over so that we can use the Global Positioning System to clarify where the border lies [but they have not shown up]."

Over and above oil concerns, tensions at the border will not be helped, security sources said, by a leaked Congolese external security report which notes that Kinshasa is worried that Congo's exiled former Vice President Jean Pierre Bemba might be plotting to resume insurgency against his country from Uganda.

Mr Bemba was the leader of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), which he created with Uganda's support during the Congolese civil war of 1998-2003.

He was defeated by President Joseph Kabila in that country's run-off elections in March which followed the October 2006 electoral stalemate.

"There is fear that Bemba could re-launch his armed campaign from Uganda again, so they have moved to occupy most of the possible launch pads on their eastern margin," a Ugandan security official said on condition he is not identified given the sensitivity of the matter.

In anticipation of this, Congolese army units are reported to have deployed heavily at Kasenyi Landing Site and Busunga border post across from Uganda's Bundibugyo District. Ugandan authorities are advising nationals not to travel to Rukwanzi and Kasenyi thus paralysing business in the area.

Fishermen at Ntoroko Landing Site on the Ugandan side claimed that Congolese armed personnel were routinely harassing them on the lake. "They are ruthless," said Mr Deo Mugisa, 31. "They will arrest you at gun point, take your boat and fishing net and sometimes fishermen completely disappear."

New information also now indicates that the tensions over the disputed territory have been simmering for a while, but it would appear that an alleged quiet visit to Kasenyi Landing Site by Energy Minister Daudi Migereko on July 11 did not go down well with the Congolese authorities.

During a meeting between the UPDF's 2 Division Commanding Officer, Brig. Hudson Mukasa, and the Congolese commander for Ituri Province, Gen. Kinkera Kambwa, that was called shortly after the barge-shooting incident, the Congolese general denounced Mr Migereko's alleged trip.

"Exploring oil from the air like Minister Migereko did on July 11 is not permitted at all," Gen. Kambwa is reported to have told Brig. Mukasa. Although admitting that his troops fired upon the barge, the general insisted that the Ugandan security personnel guarding the barge were "clearly in our waters".

But Mr Migereko flatly denies ever going to Kasenyi.

"The Congolese are being economical with the truth," the minister said yesterday. "Ministry officials, including me, only went to Kingfisher discovery wells in Buhuka [in Hoima District]. Never did I fly to Kasenyi at the said time."

It appears it was in response to the minister's alleged provocative fly-about that the Congolese army captured four UPDF soldiers on boat patrol on the lake on July 29. Those soldiers were released on August 6 at the meeting on Rukwanzi between Brig. Mukasa and Gen. Kambwa.

The Rukwanzi dispute, and the Thursday attack on Kanungu District by armed men from DR Congo that left three dead, is expected to feature prominently on the agenda of a September 17 meeting to be convened under the US government-facilitated Tripartite Plus Commission, a conflict resolution initiative for the Great Lakes region. The meeting is scheduled to take place in Kampala.

Until now, Rukwanzi Island had been "a hiding place for bandits, pirates and illegal fishermen," according to Mr Bambalira.

Not anymore.

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