Rebel groups in eastern Congo are illegally imposing taxes on trucks and pedestrians and receiving local, regional and international support in violation of U.N. sanctions, U.N. experts said Thursday.
In an interim report circulated to the Security Council, the five-member panel said it also obtained documented evidence of fraudulent "United Nations certificates" being forged to facilitate the sale of Congolese gold to buyers in Africa. The panel said it referred the matter to the U.N.'s internal investigation body.
The experts also cited credible information suggesting that new political and military organizations may soon emerge from the shifting alliances in volatile eastern Congo, "creating renewed risk of regional political interference from armed groups."
Their report was issued ahead of a council vote Friday that will extend the 20,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo for a year but withdraw up to 2,000 troops by the end of June, far fewer than Congo's government wanted. Protecting civilians and building Congo's security sector will remain the force's primary mandates.
Congo's President Joseph Kabila called for the U.N. force _ the largest in the world _ to leave before September 2011 so the country could "fly with its own wings."
But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last month he wanted to ensure that military operations against rebels in eastern Congo are successfully completed, that well-trained and equipped Congolese army units can take over the U.N. force's security role, and that the government extends its authority in areas freed from armed groups before the U.N. peacekeepers depart.
Ban recommended in his report to the council that the withdrawal start with up to 2,000 troops leaving peaceful areas of the central African nation by June 30, the 50th anniversary of Congo's independence.
Congo was engulfed in civil wars from 1996-2002, drawing in half a dozen nations and leading to deployment of the U.N. force in 1999 to support implementation of a cease-fire that was repeatedly broken. Following a 2002 agreement that ended much of the fighting, U.N. peacekeepers have supported Congo's reunification and its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006, which Kabila won.
Kabila's government, however, has since struggled to assert its control in the east and has had difficulty building effective institutions and integrating former fighters into a national army.
The report Thursday by the expert panel monitoring an arms embargo against the rebels and other U.N. sanctions details the continuing military activity by a number of rebel groups in the east.
The experts said the National Council for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, continues to exercise "de facto control of North Kivu, and to a lesser extent South Kivu," despite political and military agreements signed in 2009 with the government. CNDP units integrated into the Congolese army also "continue to respond to the parallel chain of command of Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a sanctioned individual who is also under an International Criminal Court indictment" for war crimes, they said.
Despite a communique in March from the CNDP's new president announcing the lifting of all its illegal barriers and taxes, the panel said it has received "credible testimonies that CNDP taxation mechanisms continue to operate along commercial routes ... and among the local population living in areas under their control." The U.N. peacekeeping force reports that trucks transiting Kitchanga are charged $100-150 at illegal roadblocks and pedestrians are charged 500 Congolese francs, the panel said.
"For those who attempt to evade the tax and are caught doing so, the charge is tripled," they said.
The experts also said they learned from interviews with former combatants with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, which was founded by the same men who led the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, that recruitment and training of new combatants is continuing, despite efforts to disarm the fighters.
The panel "is aware of extensive local, regional and international support networks providing political and material support to FDLR" and several other groups in violation of U.N. sanctions, the report said.
Addressing a key issue raised by the secretary-general, the experts said the rapid integration of armed groups into the fragile Congolese army in 2009 and their rapid deployment created additional challenges in building a professional, well-trained force. They singled out a disruption in salary payments to the soldiers "which contributed to ill-disciplined behavior, looting and desertions."
The experts said they also received information from credible national and international sources that taxes are being levied by state agencies, Congolese forces and rebel groups at mines, especially in the east, and at roadblocks, airstrips and borders where minerals are transported. They said some elements of the Congolese army are also reportedly participating illegally in the export of timber products.