Current Central African Republic (CAR) president Francois Bozizé's rebels took rifles from a police post in the town of Sibut just before war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba's fighters arrived in the area, judges heard today.
Judes Mbetingou, a victim who was testifying for the third day in Mr. Bemba's trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), was responding to questions by the defense, who wanted to know whether the Bozizé rebels bore any blame for the crimes committed in Sibut.
"They [rebels] could be criticized because they took weapons from Sibut police station," he said in response to questioning by defense lawyer Peter Haynes. However, he added that the rebels did not harm anyone.
Although he is testifying without protective measures, most of the evidence by Mr. Mbetingou was today heard in closed session. Last Thursday, he described indiscriminate pillaging by Mr. Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) fighters upon their arrival in Sibut on February 24, 2003.
In denying the charges against him, Mr. Bemba argues that any of the numerous armed groups active in the 2002-2003 armed conflict could have committed the crimes he has been charged with.
Several prosecution witnesses have testified about the brutal crimes committed in Sibut, purportedly by the accused's fighters. However, last June the prosecution's 'Witness 209â-' testified that Mr. Bozizé's rebels plundered government property in Sibut. This witness stated that the rebels pillaged other towns including Damara and "all along the road all the way to Chad."
Joseph Mokondoui, a former officer in the CAR army, also incriminated the rebel forces in rapes and murders in various towns on their match to capture the capital Bangui. Testifying last October, Mr. Mokondoui said that the towns of Sidhu, Bambari, Bossangoa, Bozoum, Bossembélé, Boali, and Sibut were some of the areas where the Bozizé rebels committed atrocities after they dislodged the national army.
Mr. Bemba is on trial for allegedly failing to control his MLC soldiers who prosecutors say raped, murdered, and pillaged during their deployment in the neighboring country to support its then president Ange-Félix Patassé fight off a rebellion led by Mr. Bozizé.
The defense last August presented video footage taken by a Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalist showing residents of Sibut, including the mayor and local vicar, describing Mr. Bemba's Congolese troops as "liberators" who had freed them from the brutalities of the Bozizé rebels.
The trial continues to hear Mr. Mbetingou's testimony tomorrow morning.