GOMA TSE TSE, 15 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - An uneasy calm hangs over the Pool region of the Republic of Congo (ROC). A ceasefire between the government and the rebel Conseil national de résistance (CNR) has held since 2003, but its combatants, known as the Ninjas, have been slow to disarm. There was new hope early in 2005 when the rebel leader, the Reverend Frédéric Bitsangou, alias Pasteur Ntoumi, announced that his Ninja fighters would hand in their weapons. For its part, the government said that by the end of the year it would reschedule legislative elections that had been cancelled in 2002 in the eight constituencies in the rebel-controlled Pool. IRIN interviewed Bitsangou on 12 June about how the peace process is progressing. He spoke from the rebel controlled town of Goma Tsé Tsé, some 40 km southwest of the nation's capital, Brazzaville. Here are the excerpts:
QUESTION: In January you announced you would start collecting weapons from your combatants. How many weapons have you collected so far?
ANSWER: What we are doing is bringing stability and security to the [Pool] area. That means putting order in the ranks of the Forces de défense et de résistance, known as the Ninjas. This operation should not be confused with the government's demobilisation, disarmament and reinsertion (DDR) programme. We are confiscating weapons from those who are irresponsible: drug-users and smokers of marijuana. In their hands, the weapons pose a danger to the population. When we collect the weapons we will store them. Whether or not we destroy them depends upon the political compromise with the government. We have decided to sign an agreement with the government to be a political partner. Therefore, the ball is in their court. We are waiting for their reaction.
Q: The weapons collected are only to be stored temporarily. What will happen to them eventually?
A: We will not give them to the government because it is not neutral. When the moment comes we will invite the public and the international community to a location in the Pool, and I will take a torch and we will burn these weapons. But we will only do this once we have guarantees.
Q: Exactly how many ex-combatants are under your control and are awaiting reintegration into civilian life?
A: In 2000, we made an assessment and arrived at a figure of 50,000. But when the war restarted in 2002, more youths became fighters. Since the start of the peace process, the state has not financed people's urgent needs, so some people have repurchased weapons. One should also add that there are hungry [government] soldiers who have been selling their weapons, which has aggravated the security situation.
Q: There are some who say you are not campaigning to get combatants to disarm but to prepare for the upcoming legislative elections in the Pool. Is that true?
A: That is absolutely wrong.
Q: For the legislative elections, will the CNR have candidates only in the areas that are under its control or also in Kinkala, the administrative capital of the district.
A: We will see. Candidates from other camps will not put themselves forward on our behalf. The CNR has the right to present candidates in all of the eight constituencies where seats are being contested. It is a race and we will see who wins.
Q: Is it true that five of the eight constituencies will go to you and three will go to the government?
A: That is absolutely wrong. The decision is made through the ballot box. One cannot make such political deals. We are putting in place an independent electoral commission in which all political parties will be represented.
Q: Will you be a candidate in the legislature election?
A: The strategy of the CNR is to work out who our opponents in the election are. We will not put a weak candidate forward against a strong adversary.
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