SAKE, Congo -- Congo's president has suspended the army's chief of staff after publication of a United Nations report claiming that Gen. Gabriel Amisi oversaw a criminal network selling arms to rebels in the country's troubled east.
The firing of the general indicates that Congo is finally getting tough on its notoriously dysfunctional and internally divided army. It comes as an eight-month-old rebel group, made up of soldiers who defected from the army, pushed beyond Goma, the bustling regional capital of eastern Congo, which fell to the fighters earlier this week.
On Friday, M23 rebels patrolled the town of Sake, the next town on the road south from Goma. They manned checkpoints, drank vodka in local bars and let the corpses of Congolese soldiers rot in the streets. One of the soldier's bodies bore an execution-style bullet wound to the temple.
The rebellion is led by soldiers who defected from the Congolese army. Before their recent defection, their commanders benefited from a privileged relationship with Congo's government, despite mounting evidence of their complicity in grave abuses. The leader of the M23 is believed to be Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
Tens of thousands of civilians could be seen fleeing along a 10-kilometer (6-mile) stretch of the road to Goma, carrying mattresses and cooking pots on their heads, as well as live chickens, goats, and babies bundled on their backs. The town of Sake was nearly deserted. A lone father returned to his empty house. He had fled on Thursday when the shooting erupted, but lost track of his four children in the scramble to get out of town. The youngest are just 2 and 4 years old, he said.
"We heard shots from the hills," said Timothe Mashamba. "We fled, but now I have returned. I lost my four children when we fled and haven't found them. I am waiting for them here. I can't leave. They won't know where to find me."
The president of neighboring Uganda was acting as a go-between for the two sides, and on Friday, one of the leaders of M23, Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga was in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, for talks, said deputy rebel spokesman Amani Kabasha. Earlier in the week, both Congolese President Joseph Kabila, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is accused of arming the rebels, met in Uganda for an attempted mediation.
The two presidents agreed on certain principles and were now discussing them with M23, said the rebel spokesman.
"They (Kagame, Kabila) took decisions in Kampala and now they want to talk to Bishop Runiga about them. Joseph Kabila said in his communique that he would talk to us, and that is what we want," said the rebel spokesman.
Congo's troubled east has been plagued by decades of violence, and the latest rebellion is a reincarnation of a previous conflict. The rebel group that took Goma dubs itself the M23, a reference to the March 23, 2009 peace deal that paved the way for fighters from a now-defunct rebel group to join the army. Charging that the peace accord was not implemented, soldiers defected from the Congo army in April to form the M23. Both the M23 and the previous rebel group, known as the CNDP, are widely believed to be backed by neighboring Rwanda, which has fought two wars against its much-larger neighbor.
Numerous reports by the United Nations Group of Experts have shown the extent of Rwandan infiltration in the rebel groups based in Congo, as well as in Congo's armed forces, but it wasn't until the release of the most recent findings that Congo took decisive action.
A statement released by the Office of Congo's' President Joseph Kabila said that the U.N. report published on Nov. 21 made clear that Amisi's behavior was contrary to the rules of military behavior. "The President of the Republic has decided to suspend him immediately of all his functions, while an investigation is ongoing," the statement said.
Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal and Saleh Mwanamilongo in Washington contributed to this report.