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Republic of Congo Civil War

Former military ruler Dennis Sassou Nguesso seized power in the Republic of Congo during October 1997 with the help of Angolan troops. The civil war resulted in more than 10,000 deaths in Brazzaville alone. Although the war in the Republic of Congo ended in October 1997, shooting and other acts of violence between elements of the Congolese military and paramilitary groups have since occurred in some areas, particularly in the Pool Region, southwest of Brazzaville. In August 1998 militiamen loyal to the former government launched a guerillan war against President Nguesso. Government forces have been trying to rout militia loyal to ousted President Pascal Lissouba and his prime minister, Bernard Kolelas, especially in the Pool region where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped after the military sealed off large areas.

Four major ethnic groups make up about 95 percent of the country's population; these groups speak distinct primary languages, and are concentrated regionally outside of urban areas. The largest ethnic group is the Kongo, who constitute the main ethnic group in the southern part of the country and about half the country's population. Within the Kongo group are various subgroups, including the Lari and the Vili. Other major ethnic groups include the Teke of the central region, with about 13 percent of the population, and the Mbochi of the northern region, with about 12 percent of the population.

Societal ethnic discrimination is widely practiced among virtually all ethnic groups, and is evident in private sector hiring and buying patterns and de facto segregation of urban neighborhoods. The greatest interethnic tension is between the Kongo and other ethnic groups of the more prosperous and commercial south, near the Atlantic coast, and the ethnic groups of the less developed and more sparsely populated northern region, which lies deep in the interior, at the heart of Africa's equatorial rain forest. Because southerners are more numerous and tend to be more commercially oriented than northerners, both political and economic liberalization are widely perceived as likely to advance southern interests and jeopardize northern interests.

There were ethnic overtones to both the 1997 civil war and the recent violence in Brazzaville and other areas in the southern part of the country. These conflicts have sometimes been characterized as pitting northerners, who support President Sassou against southerners, who support former president Lissouba and former prime minister Kolelas. There does tend to be heavy representation from each leader's ethnic group in his immediate entourage: Mbochi for Sassou, Nibolek for Lissouba, and Lari for Kolelas. However, the correspondence between ethnic-regional and political cleavages is only approximate, and supporters of the current and recent governments have included persons from a broad range of ethnic and regional backgrounds.

Lissouba had been elected democratically in 1992 after 28 years of one-party rule, including a lengthy period (1979-91) during which Sassou-Nguesso served as President. Lissouba's administration was characterized by severe mismanagement and by recurring clashes among militia forces loyal to Congo's major political leaders.

The civil war began when Lissouba's forces surrounded Sassou-Nguesso's home in June 1997, in an apparent attempt to eliminate his political-military faction. Sassou-Nguesso's principal base of support lay in the sparsely populated northern region of the country; northerners and in particular members of his minority Mbochi ethnic group dominated the Government. The Government claimed that the action was a police operation aimed at arresting criminal suspects. The violence evolved into a civil war in the capital. During the war, Lissouba forces repeatedly used helicopters piloted by foreign mercenaries to bomb areas controlled by Sassou-Nguesso's Cobra militia forces, resulting in the deaths of many civilians as well as combatants. There were also clashes in the north, including the cities of Impfondo, Ouesso, Owando, and, briefly at the end of 1997, in Pointe Noire.

Once the civil war began, government soldiers and the militias that supported them, as well as the opposition militias against which they fought, engaged in widespread extortion and harassment of civilians. Opposition militias killed, beat, and detained persons because of their ethnicity. Both sides, particularly the Government, targeted densely populated areas with heavy shells and rockets. Soldiers and militias engaged in heavy looting throughout the capital, causing great property damage. As a result of the violence, thousands of persons, most of them civilians, were killed in Brazzaville, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

In October 1997 Sassou-Nguesso forces defeated government and militia troops loyal to President Lissouba, and established a new Government. Shortly thereafter, the Sassou Government suspended the constitution. Following Sassou-Nguesso's seizure of power, his Cobra militia conducted house-to-house searches in the capital for members of the defeated government security forces, private militias, and Lissouba's political followers, killing dozens. The Cobras also engaged in large-scale looting after their victory. After the war, the victorious Sassou Government's militias continued to apprehend and kill many of its political opponents.

Several hundred Angolan troops intervened to assist Sassou-Nguesso forces in Brazzaville; more Angolan troops entered the country from the south and occupied the port city of Pointe Noire. Angolan troops also participated in operations in the south, between Pointe Noire and Brazzaville. Near the end of the war, an Angolan MiG aircraft bombed Brazzaville, resulting in the deaths of an unknown number of civilians.

After August 1998 there was again civil unrest and armed resistance to the Government in the populous southern part of the country and in neighborhoods of Brazzaville, the capital, which were inhabited chiefly by members of southern ethnic groups.

In April 1998 armed bands reportedly linked to former president Lissouba's Cocoye militiamen killed several government workers, seized the Moukoukoulou hydroelectric dam in Bouenza, region and cut off electricity to the population of Point-Noire for several weeks until their surrender could be negotiated. During 18-21 December 1998, while in control of the town of Nkayi in Bouenza, Cocoyes reportedly targeted government officials and others from northern ethnic groups for summary execution.

In the Pool region from late August 1998 through year's end, armed bands whose members were drawn principally from former Ninja militiamen once loyal to Bernard Kolelas, who served as prime minister during the final months of Lissouba's government, targeted government officials in numerous acts of violence. On 29 August 1998, these groups killed the police commissioner in Mindouli. They also killed the deputy prefect of Goma Tse Tse on 26 September 1998, and burned the police station and prefecture offices in Kinkala on 09 October 1998. They also reportedly killed 6 members of a church-led mediation committee and as many as 35 other civilians on 14 November 1998 in an attack in Mindouli, despite a heavy government security contingent to protect committee members.

In responding to antigovernment violence in the Pool and Bouenza regions and in Brazzaville during the last four months of 1998, the Government often deployed undisciplined troops, including some recently recruited from President Sassou-Nguesso's former Cobra militia. Security forces, which included many undisciplined and poorly trained former members of nongovernmental militias, were responsible for extrajudicial killings including summary executions, disappearances, rapes, beatings and physical abuse of detainees and the civilian population, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and arbitrary searches and widespread looting of private homes. Such incidents were particularly numerous after August 1998, in connection with military operations to quell unrest in the Pool and Bouenza regions and in December 1998 fighting in Brazzaville.

The origin and nature of the 16-20 December 1998 fighting in the Bacongo and Makelekele neighborhoods of Brazzaville remains uncertain. Bacongo and Makelekele were among the neighborhoods least damaged during the 1997 civil war, and hence may have been relatively rich targets for looting. There were reports of infiltration by members of antigoverment Ninja militiamen, of fighting between former Cobras and other government security forces, and of summary executions of civilians by government forces, and of extensive use of mortars and artillery by government or Angolan forces; the sequence in which these events may have occurred remains uncertain. However, several facts seemed fairly well-established: no more than 300 Ninjas were involved in the fighting; at least 1,000 persons died, perhaps many more; the Bacongo and Makelekele neighborhoods were damaged severely and abandoned by their roughly 200,000 inhabitants, most of them southerners; and government forces, chiefly Sassou's former militiamen, extensively looted these neighborhoods with impunity for days after they were abandoned. Members of the security forces drove trucks and wheeled push-carts piled high with looted goods from these neighborhoods to markets in unharmed northern neighborhoods of the capital. Some members of the security forces burned cars found in the northern neighborhoods that they believed to have been acquired by looting, but otherwise the Government made no evident effort to stop the looting, which continued through the end of the year, while the security forces kept the abandoned neighborhoods off limits to all but themselves. During this period, members of the security forces targeted and burned the homes of prominent members of the largely southern ethnic communities of those neighborhoods.

By the end of 1998, the Government reportedly had lost effective control of some areas in the southern part of the country. Units of the Angolan armed forces and, reportedly, some members of the Chadian armed forces, and possibly other national armies, operated inside the country in support of the Government. Rwandan Hutu militiamen, formerly in refugee camps in the country, also participated in government military operations. They were opposed to southern rebel groups supporting Lissouba, which included Cocoye militiamen operating in the Bouenza, Niari, and Lekoumou regions, and Ninja and Nsiloulou militiamen operating principally in southern Pool region.

The economy suffered serious losses during the civil war, particularly in Brazzaville, in which more than one-third of the country's population of roughly 2.5 million normally resides. However, the war did not significantly affect the oil industry, which operates offshore. Widespread civil conflict, including the destruction of the Bacongo and Makalekele neighborhoods of Brazzaville and of much of the town of Nkayi in Bouenza during December 1998 fighting, displaced more than 200,000 civilians. Clashes in southwest Pool also disrupted the railway that serves at the vital economic link between Brazzaville and Pointe Noire, the main port.

As of October 1999 thousands of homeless people in the Congo Republic's western Pool region were starving to death, victims of a 10-month old forgotten civil war. The uprooted civilians were in the Kinkala, west of Brazzaville, where thousands of people were close to death due to severe food shortages and up to 10 people succumbed daily to starvation. The only aid came from Caritas, which distributed some food and medicine supplied by UN agencies.

Through military offensives, offers of amnesty, negotiations, and efforts to broaden the Government's political base, the Government reestablished effective control over most of the south. In November and December 1999, the Government signed cease-fire and reconciliation accords with rebel groups, which called for disarmament, demobilization, the reintegration of former militiamen, and a "national dialogue without exclusion" to resolve political disputes underlying the military conflict.

The security forces include the police, the Gendarmerie, and the armed forces; however, the functional distinction between these forces was not clear. While, in theory, the police should be the first to respond to security incidents, with gendarmes and army units intervening later if necessary; in practice joint operations are common. Many new recruits who have joined the security forces since the 1997 civil war were former members of nongovernmental militias.

As of March 2002, the Government did not have full control over some individual members of the security forces. Since the end of the 1998-1999 conflict, the Government has established increasing control over progovernment "Cobra" militiamen who effectively had been autonomous. Some units of the Angolan armed forces remained in the country under a bilateral agreement to provide security, most of them near the Congolese border with Cabinda (Angola). Rwandan Hutu militiamen, as well as former soldiers from the DRC, remained in the country as refugees and no longer participate in government military operations. A major challenge for the country has been the reintegration of former militiamen from all sides in the 1998-1999 conflict who have stopped fighting under the terms of the peace accords. In some cases, joint military units comprised of army troops and former rebels provide security in former rebel-controlled areas, and several thousand former combatants have benefited from internationally supported programs to help their reintegration into society and to collect and destroy illegal arms. Some members of antigovernment groups supporting Lissouba or his Prime Minister, Bernard Kolelas, have been permitted to rejoin their previous employers, for example, in the Ministry of Interior.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso was elected to a seven-year term as president of Congo in March 2002. In the two rounds of elections held in May and June 2002, the parties that supported President Sassou-Nguesso, the Parti Congolais du Travail (PCT) and the Forces Démocratiques Unies (FDU) won 83 of the 153 seats in the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly). In July 2002, it was announced that the PCT and its allies had won 56 of the 72 seats in the Senate.

While the government is endeavoring to reconstruct roads and buildings, scattered bands of armed former militiamen are nonetheless active in the Pool region, which includes the capital city.

Fighting broke out in March and June of 2002 when rebel groups launched attacks first in the Pool region and later at the Brazzaville airport. The fighting in Brazzaville was quickly contained and the rebels were repulsed. In October 2002, attacks began to increase in the Pool region.

Most of the Republic of Congo, a country of three-million people, is at peace. Only the Pool region, south of the capital Brazzaville, remains unstable. In November and December 2002, tens-of-thousands of people fled Pool because of fighting between government forces and what are called "Ninja" militia rebels. The government opened up so-called humanitarian corridors two-years ago, to give safe passage to former rebel soldiers who wished to become re-integrated into society.

In April 2003 over 2,000 rebel Ninja soldiers had surrendered with their weapons in Congo's Pool region. this followed a peace agreement reached on 17 March 2003 between the government and Ninja leader, Rev. Frederic Bitsangou (Pastor Ntoumi). The disarmed Ninjas, who had been guaranteed amnesty by the government, were awaiting either integration into the military or assistance in returning to civilian life. Conflict erupted in Pool between government forces and Ninja rebels loyal to Ntoumi in late March 2002. An additional 600 Ninja rebels were reported to have surrendered in May 2003. The Republic of Congo is within reach of a durable peace.




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