The systematic use of helicopters to attack villages in the Pool region of the Republic of Congo shows "a wanton disregard for civilian lives", Bill Paton, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Brazzaville, has said.
"We have first hand testimonies from several villages of helicopter attacks on civilians. We have the names of ten villages we are sure of," he said on Tuesday.
The military uses MI-24 helicopters armed with bombs or rockets, and always with heavy machine guns capable of firing 3,000 rounds of 23 mm ammunition a minute. No one can yet estimate the casualties the helicopter raids have caused. One casualty of the attacks, now lying in a Brazzaville hospital, his back lacerated by shell shrapnel, told IRIN how helicopters attacked his village repeatedly.
The wounded man, Mayala Fidele, from the village of Zandu in Pool, said he heard bombing at Matoumbou, a village about 10 km away at midday on 11 May. "We hid in the long grass around the village," he said. "We saw the helicopters circle us twice, dropping bombs in the village and shooting at houses and into the forest."
He was wounded when the helicopters returned on Wednesday and strafed the area. Mayala and his family said they never say the Ninja guerrillas, the presumed target of the attack on Zandu.
The latest upsurge of violence in Congo dates from March 27, the UN says, and follows a long period of calm after the civil wars of 1997 and 1998. The present conflict is centred in Pool, southern Congo, where the so-called Ninja rebels, of the Bakongo people, have been observing a truce with government forces during the past two years. This pact appears to have been broken when hundreds of government troops arrived in the village of Vindza, near the base of Ninja leader Frederic Binsangou, alias Pasteur Ntoumi. He has said he had sent scouts to investigate the presence of government troops and there had been an exchange of fire on the 27th.
Some analysts say the government troops, who were mostly of ethnic groups opposed to the Bakongo, were already in dispute with another government contingent that had been garrisoned in Vindza for years.
On March 31, the government said, Ninjas attacked Kindamba, a settlement of about 16,000 people south of Vindza. Most of the population fled, but about 5,000 were moved to sites within the town, heavily defended by government troops.
Situation in Kindamba
A UN inter-agency team finally flew into Kindamba on 28 May, after two months during which government denied the team permission to enter the town on security grounds. The team found some 2,000 people remaining in one camp, and the other 14,000 thought to be hiding in a forest about 10 km away.
"We are very encouraged by the government's decision to allow us access to Kindamba. We left medical kits and we would like to spend a whole day flying in more supplies," Paton said.
There were signs of malnutrition at Kindamba, he said, although there was more concern about the risk of disease, as the 2,000 people are crowded into a site with no latrine. At least 10 deaths have been recorded, and the total is likely to be higher. There is also concern about harassment and rapes, including rapes that reportedly took place on the same day the UN team visited. A number of women have reported being gang raped by soldiers.
Most of the town around the site has been destroyed. Kindamba is just one of the zones affected by military operations in Pool.
The conflict spread after 2 April when militia, thought to be Ninjas, attacked the country's main railway line, heightening tension in the capital, Brazzaville. The circumstances surrounding the attack are disputed, with considerable speculation that it was staged. But Ntoumi has sent an audiocassette to President Denis Sassou-Nguesso claiming responsibility for the attack, and calling for renewed negotiations.
Rail traffic, disrupted for week, returned to normal in May. Observers remain puzzled at the Ninjas' failure to disrupt the railway more seriously, if this was their intention. Some suggest that the threat to the railway may be exaggerated, and say senior army officers have earned millions of dollars from railway "protection".
Although army colonels Maurice Mbima and Dieudonne Jesse reported a subsequent raid on a railway post at Matoumbou, they give conflicting explanations for this later attack. Observers debate if this difference in opinion reveals a strategy of denying that government controls, or whether it is a reflection of feuding between rival Ninjas factions. Mbima and Jesse do, however, agree that the Ninjas are too few to control strategic zones.
Other than the recent attack, the Ninjas have not attempted to sabotage the railway, and this has led some people to question the government's use of combat helicopters since May against villages in Ninja
"One can't justify the helicopter attacks," Brazzaville Archbishop Anatole Milandou, said. "The army isn't hitting the real target. The Ninjas are mobile. The people who are most likely to be hit are women and children, and the elderly."
Since the fighting began in Pool two months ago, the UN estimates that at least 50,000 people have fled their homes, as the air attacks and sweeps by ground troops continue. Twenty-three young men whom the military detained at a displaced people's camp a month ago have not been seen since. There are few young men or adolescent boys among the displaced people reaching Brazzaville, probably because they fear for their lives if they encounter the military.
The humanitarian response has so far been concentrated in Brazzaville where UNICEF, Caritas, MSF France and MSF Holland, and International Rescue Committee have established data on displaced persons not currently in camps. UNICEF has supplied them with non-food items such as bedding and jerry cans, and CARITAS is organising food deliveries.
In Pool the health infrastructure is still functioning and the main need is likely to be food, says MSF, as the villagers have already missed a sowing season.
Reasons for war
The president maintains there is no war in Pool but there have been reports of soldiers taken hostage, and at Kindamba there were almost daily attacks during the first weeks in April. The timing of the latest military operations, coinciding with the run-up to a series of elections for the presidency and for the legislative assembly, has prompted speculation that the trouble might have been stirred up by government officials who do not want elections in the region.
"Now with a part of the population in flight they can't hold elections in the Pool region," Milandou said.
Other observers say cabinet members could lose their jobs if they fail to retain their parliamentary seats at the polls. In some constituencies ministers are running against members of the president's family. Analysts say that Sassou-Nguesso, who has consolidated his hold on power since winning elections, may be seeking to distance himself from the old guard of the Congolese Workers Party, the traditional ruling group. Analysts also say that senior military figures could also lose from constitutional rule. For the political and military "old guard" a revival of war and ethnic tensions, reinforcing the regime's ethnic basis, may be a convenient counter to reform.
Ntoumi is not thought to control a significant military force. Analysts believe he may have only a few hundred dedicated fighters and up to 3,000 more loosely attached - who have shown little enthusiasm for fighting in recent years, and who are divided among themselves.
Ntoumi heads a religious cult that enforces observance of various taboos, such as not shaking women by the hand, or wearing shoes. It also prescribes that its followers practise a ritual known as the punishment of St Michael, involving branding people with a red-hot machete. Ntoumi's followers' exactions have made them widely unpopular; but he has been negotiating with Sassou-Nguesso since 1999, extracting money and supplies from the government.
Analysts say Ntoumi may become so dependent on official aid that his only hope of retaining some power would be to make himself enough a nuisance that Sassou-Nguesso feels the need to placate him, but not enough of a problem that he must be crushed.
Other observers say that perhaps after the second round of elections, due on 26 June, Sassou-Nguesso may reopen negotiations and withdraw some troops from the disputed areas of Pool that are not strategically vital to the government.
Pessimists observe, however, that the last civil war in Brazzaville erupted some three and a half months after a similar outbreak of fighting in Pool. While the Ninjas' ethnic sympathisers in Brazzaville showed few signs then and few signs now of seriously threatening the government's control, analysts say other stresses within the country could encourage some in the hierarchy to continue a war which the government stands little danger of losing.