Abusive Congolese colonel got aid

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

NGUNGU, CONGO -- The United Nations peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo provided food, fuel and logistical support to a Congolese colonel overseeing soldiers accused of gang rapes, massacres and other abuses, months after U.N. human rights investigators included him on a list of the army's most abusive commanders and in further internal warnings.

The U.N. decision to support Col. Innocent Zimurinda and other commanders on the list has been part of the mission's backing of Congolese military operations targeting a notorious rebel group. The 10-year-old U.N. peacekeeping mission, deployed to keep an elusive peace following two devastating Congolese wars, is the most expensive in the world and receives a quarter of its budget from the United States.

In October, a top U.N. investigator cited "credible evidence" that Zimurinda had led a massacre of civilians that included the gang rape of 10 women, some of whose breasts were hacked off. In November, U.N. officials said the mission would halt support to units implicated in human rights violations, after U.N. lawyers had warned that support of abusive commanders could leave the mission vulnerable to charges of complicity in war crimes.

But in rare interviews here, Zimurinda and one of his deputies said they were still receiving supplies in December and January. A U.N. spokesman, Kevin Kennedy, said he could confirm that supplies already "in the pipeline" had continued to flow as the mission waited for legal guidance from U.N. headquarters, and he said of Zimurinda that "there may have been units under his sector command that received support."

At a news conference last week, the United Nations' head of peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, said the mission is not currently supporting units with which Zimurinda is associated.

Top U.N. officials have said human rights abuses by the Congolese military would have been worse without their participation, and they stressed the larger import of ridding the area of rebels, whose presence has helped fuel conflict for years. Among the most recent reports being reviewed by U.N. investigators are allegations that Zimurinda had given orders to execute 13 civilians, including a baby, who were shot in the back of the head and tossed into a river.

Zimurinda, 38, who controls several mineral mines in this lush, hilly farming area, has denied any involvement in human rights abuses. He calls his accusers "the enemies of peace."

"We cannot say we are happy with the level of support," Zimurinda said in the interview. "But anyway, we want to say 'thank you' to the U.N."

The U.N.-backed operations were the result of a major rapprochement between Congo and Rwanda and were considered by the United Nations, United States and others as a crucial step toward resolving one of the world's deadliest conflicts. The rebel group targeted in the operations includes leaders accused in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

But the campaign, initially backed by Rwandan soldiers, has been a disaster for civilians, with soldiers and rebels accused of committing brutal rapes, massacres and other abuses designed to punish villagers deemed uncooperative with their side. When the Rwandan military departed in February 2009, Congolese officials asked the United Nations to step in, placing the peacekeepers in the position of partnering with one of the most abusive armies in the world.

Nearly a year later, the continued support of commanders such as Zimurinda has left the mission open to criticism that it has helped perpetuate a brutal status quo in the east. At worst, human rights activists say, the mission knowingly assisted commanders as they committed atrocities and set up personal fiefdoms across eastern Congo.

A recent U.N. report found that although the operations have pushed the rebels out of mines, for instance, they are quickly being replaced by rogue army officers such as Zimurinda. A small U.S. military team is assisting the Congolese army with intelligence- gathering in its operations.

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