KINSHASA, March 2 (Reuters) - On a humid night in Kinshasa, six men sit at a table littered with beer bottles.
This is no ordinary group of drinkers.
At the head of the table sits a government official, putting away beers at an impressive rate. The men either side are five of the most feared warlords from Congo's lawless Ituri district, celebrating new jobs as generals in the national army.
Some in Democratic Republic of Congo saw their appointment as an important step towards dismantling the plethora of armed militias in the mineral-rich district, where 50,000 people have died since 1999 and gunmen killed nine U.N. soldiers last week.
Others were appalled. They want Congo's fragile transitional government, or an international court, to investigate and prosecute several of these men for war crimes -- not reward them with high-ranking jobs in the fractious army.
"Appointments like these raise serious questions about the Congolese government's commitment to justice and human rights," said Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Africa division of the international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW).
When years of ethnic clashes in Ituri came to world attention in early 2003, a European intervention force was rushed to the main town Bunia and the United Nations now has nearly 5,000 peacekeepers, a third of its Congo force, in the district.
Since then, the U.N. and the government have been trying to pacify Ituri, bringing the militias into the wider peace process, which is struggling to stabilise Congo after a five-year war that sucked in six neighbouring countries.
But the killing of nine Bangladeshi blue helmets on Feb. 25 has thrust the mayhem in Ituri back into the international spotlight, as well as the lack of progress in finding peace.
SMART SUITS AND CROCODILE SHOES
HRW said four of the generals appointed on Jan. 10 -- Jerome Kakwavu, Bosco Taganda, Floribert Kisembo and Germain Katanga -- should be investigated for their roles in Ituri violence.
"Hundreds of witnesses have told Human Rights Watch these four commanders ordered, tolerated or personally committed ethnic massacres, murder, torture, rape, mutilation and the recruitment of child soldiers," the group said in a statement.
Ituri's warlords have instead come to the capital Kinshasa, where they sport gleaming new uniforms, live alongside U.N. chiefs and visiting dignitaries in the city's smartest hotel and say they are serving the government.
Never far from his cane, pistol or bodyguards, and dressed immaculately in Italian suits and crocodile shoes, Kakwavu says he is in the process of handing all his weapons over to the government and is ready to serve the country.
"I'm here in Kinshasa, working with the army and following orders from superiors on where I will be deployed," Kakwavu, head of a 5,000 strong, well-armed militia on Congo's border with Uganda and Sudan, told Reuters in Kinshasa.
The government hopes to disarm or incorporate fighters from Ituri -- where battles for control of diamond and gold mines and lucrative border crossings fuel the conflicts between ethnic militias -- into a cohesive national army.
But HRW says Kakwavu's FAPC militia is responsible for "widespread and serious human rights abuses, including summary executions, torture and rape", saying that in some cases, the newly-appointed general carried out the executions himself.
"These people are given false information. This is all propaganda -- the areas I controlled were peaceful. I have not been part of the ethnic war -- I was just protecting people," said Kakwavu, angrily rejecting the accusations.
CIVILIANS BEAR BRUNT
A costly disarmament programme kicked off in Ituri in September. Just under 2,500 fighters have handed in weapons -- far short of an ambitious target of 15,000 in three months.
And the conflict in the district is still simmering, with civilians continuing to bear the brunt of it.
Photographs of a massacre at a town called Lengabo, just outside Bunia, where 14 people were killed in September, show the charred corpses of small children, many of whom have had their arms or legs hacked off by machetes.
Nor is it difficult to find other pictures taken in Ituri of gunmen from various militias, high on drugs, coming back from a raid sporting their trophies -- the decapitated heads and limbs of neighbours they had just attacked.
The International Criminal Court is collecting evidence on crimes in Ituri and hopes to begin trials within a year -- a move organisations such as HRW support.
Some international officials have argued that bringing the warlords into state structures was the only way to pacify Ituri. But even they appear to be losing patience after the upsurge in violence and the killing of the peacekeepers.
"It was foreseen that taking these people out of Ituri would accelerate the disarmament and integration process but it seems that they have been sending the wrong message to their people on the ground," said U.N. mission spokeswoman Eliane Nabaa.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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