Militia chief arrested for mass rape as country goes to the polls

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A notorious Congo militia chief whose men have been accused of systematic rapes has been arrested, the army said on Friday.

Isaac Chirambiza was seized on Tuesday with three of his men in a military operation in South Kivu province, regional spokesman Captain Dieudonne Kasereka told AFP.

One soldier died in the operation, which unfolded in a forest, he said. Chirambiza’s militia is a subgroup of Raia Mutomboki, an organisation that portrays itself as defenders of the Congolese against the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu force that became established in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000.

In March, AFP visited a clinic for rape victims run by Dr. Denis Mukwege, who this year was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

Several victims said they had been raped by Raia Mutomboki men, including a girl aged 10.

Congo has been referred to as “the rape capital of the world” with as many as 36 women and girls being raped per day and 40 per cent of all Congolese women victims of sexual assault.

It comes as Congo’s leader says “there is no further reason” to prevent Sunday’s presidential election after two years of delays, but he blames an ebola outbreak for the last-minute decision to keep an estimated 1 million voters from the polls.

In an interview with The Associated Press, President Joseph Kabila says it would be a “disaster” if people vote on Sunday in two large communities in the ebola outbreak zone, asserting that “a single person” could infect scores or hundreds of others.

His comments Thursday evening contradict those of his own health officials, who have said precautions had been made in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote in the outbreak zone.

World Health Organisation also has said precautions were in place, including tons of hand sanitiser and screening of all voters entering polling stations.

Mr Kabila, however, asserted that people could be infected as they use Congo’s voting machines, which require tapping on a touchscreen to select candidates.

The voting is delayed in opposition strongholds Beni and Butembo — but not in other communities with confirmed ebola cases in this outbreak — until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila’s successor in January.

Protests broke out in Beni on Thursday over the delayed vote, with some attacking an ebola response centre and sending 21 patients fleeing.

While the health ministry said most had tested negative for the virus, the vandalism was the latest setback in efforts to contain what has become the second deadliest ebola outbreak in history.

Protesters pointed out that life has continued in the outbreak zone, with schools open, people going to church and candidates holding campaign rallies. Mr Kabila responded Thursday by saying such activities don’t involve voting machines.

Sunday’s election will have no trouble, Mr Kabila said. Police will be prepared to secure the population, he added. He dismissed opposition allegations that their campaigns had faced restrictions in recent weeks.

In the AP interview, Congo’s president also sounded defiant in the face of international pressure over the election, which has been delayed since late 2016.

Congo has resisted what it considers international meddling in the election, vowing to fund the vote itself. Western observer groups are notably absent. “I have already said that Congo is not a beggar country,” Mr Kabila said.



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