A former aide to the late president Ange-Félix Patassé has defended Jean-Pierre Bemba's fighters, saying they protected civilians who were displaced during a 2001 coup attempt in the Central African Republic (CAR).
The witness, who was testifying under a pseudonym in Mr. Bemba's trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), said Central African civilians were happy with the protection they received from the accused's fighters. Furthermore, 'Witness D04-57' stated that General François Bozizé, the current president of the CAR who overthrew Mr. Patassé in March 2003, had Congolese nationals in his rebel force.
The witness did not say what position he held but indicated that he was a senior member of the security forces under the Patassé regime. "The president sent me with a helicopter, and we overflew the area and saw people in Ouango, Zongo, and others were in the mountains. They were happy; they were satisfied," the witness said of civilians who were under the protection of Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops. This was during a coup attempt against Mr. Patassé in 2001.
'Witness D04-57' said the Congolese troops deployed in the CAR from October 2002 to March 2003, the period over which the crimes Mr. Bemba is charged with were committed, fell under the command of Central African authorities.
He also testified that on a visit to the conflict country, Mr. Bemba ordered his fighters to obey the authority of those commanders - who the witness named as CAR army chief of staff General André Mazzi, head of presidential guard General Ferdinand Bombayake, and Colonel Thierry Lengbe, the coordinator of the center that spearheaded operations against the insurgents. He said General Bombayake and Colonel Lengbe were present when Mr. Bemba addressed his soldiers.
According to the witness, on October 25, 2002, soldiers led Mr. Bozizé, who had been sacked as Mr. Patassé's army chief, overrun several suburbs in the capital Bangui in an attempt to grab power. They occupied the suburbs of Boy-Rabé, PK 12, Gobongo, the 4th arrondissement, the 8th arrondissement, and the road to Damara.
The witness said it was only when the MLC arrived in these areas on October 30-November 1, 2002, that the rebels were pushed out.
Among the ranks of the Bozizé fighters were numerous deserters from the CAR army, "mercenaries from Chad," and "some Congolese who came to Bangui," who the witness said Bozizé had recruited.
Defense lawyer Aimé Kilolo-Musamba asked what language the different soldiers fighting with General Bozizé spoke.
"They spoke Sango some of them. Other spoke the Chadian language, others spoke Lingala," the witness replied. Sango is a Central African language widely spoken in Bangui, while Lingala is native to the Democratic Republic of Congo where it is predominantly spoken.
'Witness D04-57' explained that he knew this because he was in a position of responsibility, and informants gave him intelligence. "Even among those who followed Bozizé, I sent out individuals to collect intelligence," he added.
Mr. Bemba is on trial at the ICC for allegedly failing to discipline his soldiers, who brutalized civilians during the conflict in the CAR. He has denied the three war crimes and two crimes against humanity charges.
The evidence by 'Witness D04-57' casts doubt on the identity of the perpetrators of the crimes, as he stated that among the ranks of the Bozizé rebels there were Lingala speakers. Previous witnesses have said the perpetrators spoke Lingala, which marked them out as members of Mr. Bemba's militia.
Furthermore, the witness said Mr. Bemba's fighters arrived on Central African territory at the earliest on October 30, 2002, five days after the Bozizé rebels had occupied several Bangui suburbs. Prosecutors have called witnesses who testified to crimes being committed in these areas prior to this date and claimed the perpetrators were MLC.
Today's witness said he learned about the arrival of the Congolese troops over a walkie-talkie, and he traveled to the riverbank to receive them. Weapons, uniform, ammunition, and the soldiers' allowance for buying food and other necessities were provided to the foreign troops by the CAR army. He also said Mr. Bemba's commanders in the conflict country were provided with Thuraya satellite phones that they used to communicate with the three Central African commanders they reported to.
'Witness D04-57' also said that in 2008 he met ICC officials who interviewed him about the conflict, but he did not know why they did not call him to testify. The meeting took place in a European capital where he lives in exile. "They took my statement and didn't say anything else. I don't even know their names," he said. "They didn't even give me a copy of the statement I made."
The trial continues tomorrow morning with cross-examination of 'Witness D04-57' by the prosecution.