Jean-Pierre Bemba's troops deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) operated jointly with that country's army, according to testimony heard today.
"There was a merger with FACA [Central African Armed Forces] troops," said 'Witness D04-45' while testifying about the operations of the 28th battalion of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). The witness on Wednesday started his testimony in the trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) by way of video link from the Congolese capital Kinshasa.
Under questioning by defense lawyer Peter Haynes, he recalled that when the battalion crossed into the conflict country, it was initially based at Camp Beyale from October 28, 2002, before operations against rebels started two days later. These operations saw MLC troops together with FACA move to the suburb of Point Kilomètre 12 (PK12) near the capital Bangui, where the rebels had set up their headquarters.
"We were able to drive them out. But the enemy had spent quite some time at PK12," said the witness, who testified with his image and voice distorted in order to protect his identity.
The witness said civilians in the area reported that the rebels had committed abuses, but he did not say in open court what these abuses were. 'Witness D04-45' said there were no problems between MLC soldiers and PK12 residents. Interactions between the Congolese soldiers and local residents were facilitated by the local soldiers, he said.
The witness recounted a visit to PK12 by Mr. Bemba, which lasted approximately 10 minutes. The purpose of the visit was to "convey a message of congratulations" to president Ange-Félix Patassé for driving the rebels out of town. Mr. Bemba's troops were in that country to help Mr. Patassé beat back an armed insurrection.
'Witness D04-45' testified that Mr. Bemba, who was accompanied to PK12 by high ranking Central African government officials, "told us to stay motivated, to keep our morale high and that we were under the command of this other side (FACA)."
Mr. Bemba is on trial at the ICC for allegedly failing to rein in his soldiers, who brutalized Central African civilians. He has denied the charges, arguing that once his soldiers crossed into the CAR, they fell under Mr. Patassé's command. He has also argued that any of the numerous other armed forces that were active in the 2002-2003 conflict could have been the perpetrators.
'Witness D04-45' also stated that Mr. Bemba's troops used communications devices provided by Central African authorities. "When the unit crossed over, it did not have any communications devices. It was Colonel Thierry of the Central African general staff who provided the communications devices," he said.
Thierry Lengbe headed the Center for Command Operations (CCOP), which coordinated all military operations against the insurgents. The witness said the devices were used to coordinate operations via a network managed by Central African radio operators.
The testimony by 'Witness D04-45 contradicts that of Colonel Lengbe who testified for the prosecution in November 2011. He said the Congolese troops operated independently of FACA, except for one joint operation on October 27, 2002 in PK13 suburb.
Furthermore, Colonel Lengbe said the MLC took along their communications equipment to the neighboring country. This radio equipment, according to him, could not communicate with that of the FACA.
The trial continues on Monday, March 18, with the cross-examination of 'Witness D04-45.'