A Tutsi-led uprising in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has unleashed a wave of ethnic bloodletting and witch-hunts sponsored both by rebels and the government, according to diplomats, eyewitnesses and aid workers.
In Kinshasa, only days after Justice Minister Mwenze Kongolo vowed severe punishment for anyone persecuting Tutsis, government troops were racing around the capital rounding up, and sometimes shooting on the spot, anyone looking like a Tutsi.The victims include not only Tutsis but Congolese who physically resemble them or who are suspected of sympathizing with the Tutsi-led revolt that has captured three major eastern towns since fighting broke out Aug. 2.
One victim of the witch-hunt, who succeeded in escaping from a military barracks where Tutsis are being held, said soldiers arresting her said they had orders to kill.
"They said there was no room for Rwandans and that they had orders to kill. They held me for hours describing how they were killing Tutsis slowly," she told Reuters.
"They said they would chop me into so many little pieces that even a chicken wouldn't find them on the ground," said the Congolese woman, who was mistaken for a Tutsi.
"They said they were killing babies in front of their mothers," she added.
Unrest in Democratic Congo (formerly Zaire) is partly rooted in the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry in neighboring Rwanda that exploded in a genocide of some 800,000 minority Tutsis by Hutus in 1994.
Rwanda's Tutsi-led army and its Ugandan allies supported a Zairean uprising last year that toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and installed rebel leader Laurent Kabila as president.
But Kabila's former backers have now turned against him. The current revolt broke out just days after he ordered the withdrawal from his country of remaining Rwandan troops.
Diplomats say Kabila himself is playing the race card, with government members whipping up nationalist and anti-Rwandan sentiment to drum up support against the fresh uprising. Congolese Tutsi, with the same features as their ethnic kinsmen in Rwanda, are widely regarded as being Rwandan.
Kabila's Interior Minister Gaetan Kakudji told reporters on Tuesday that authorities were holding Tutsis but said this was a "preventive measure" to save them from being lynched.
Diplomats and aid workers monitoring the situation say up to 1,000 Tutsis from both Rwanda and Con-go itself are being held, some in Kokolo and Tshatshi military barracks in Kinshasa.
But they say most of the civilians are at a football stadium where they are able to receive visits and food from friends.
Eyewitnesses said one of the few Tutsis to have remained behind in the administration following the uprising, a financial adviser at the presidency, was executed in front of dozens of witnesses outside Kinshasa's Central Bank last week.
They said he was arrested by police but soldiers grabbed him from them and shot him dead on the spot.
In the east of the country, hotbed of the rebellion, aid workers describe similar scenes.