Close to 300 soldiers from the former rebel group CNDP have deserted the Congolese army on Sunday, spreading panic in the North Kivu province, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The situation is tense in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soldiers of the former National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a rebel group that was incorporated into the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) since 2009, have defected reportedly on the orders of General Bosco Ntaganda, who heads the FARDC battalion in North Kivu.
"Terminator" wanted by ICC
Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed in the Ituri region between 2002 and 2003, while serving in Thomas Lubanga's rebel militia, Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).
Following a peace agreement between the CNDP and the Congolese government, the CNDP forces were drafted into the FARDC, and Ntaganda was promoted to the rank of general, despite an ICC arrest warrant against him and his infamous reputation best summarised by his nickname, "The Terminator".
However, since the conviction of Thomas Lubanga by the ICC last month, the Congolese government has been under increasing pressure to arrest Ntaganda, who was until now considered a vital element for stability and security in Northern Kivu.
For the past few weeks there have been rumours spreading in Goma about an imminent arrest. "Bosco Ntaganda is afraid and he is reacting like a hunted animal, trying to intimidate the enemy," said a high-ranking FARDC official, who wished to remain anonymous.
The desertion of former CNDP soldiers from the FARDC could therefore be interpreted as a show of strength by Ntaganda, and not the start of new rebellion as many have feared since Sunday.
In fact, some of the deserters have already reportedly been reintegrated into FARDC ranks, following mediation by high-ranking military officials who arrived from the capital, Kinshasa, on the same day.
Many lives were lost in the CNDP rebellion, between 2006 and 2009, as the rebels came close to capturing Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province.
According to military sources, soldiers loyal to Ntaganda had reportedly regrouped in the Rutshuru region, north of Goma, where they reportedly clashed with loyalist Congolese forces.
"It's an uprising! There is no other word to describe it. We don't want the former CNDP soldiers in our ranks anymore. The army is divided," said another FARDC officer.
Although the worse may have been averted, the recent events have nonetheless exposed the fragile state of relations between the Congolese government and General Ntaganda.
This weakened strategic alliance could well be on the brink of collapse, at a time when the Congolese government is being openly criticised by the international community over the November 2011 presidential and legislative elections.
Ironically, Human Rights Watch, among others, had already accused the former CNDP soldiers of intimidating populations into voting for President Joseph Kabila.
Now that Kabila has been re-elected, Ntaganda might well be used as a sacrificial lamb to appease international criticisms over the elections.