JOHANNESBURG — U.N. officials on Wednesday celebrated the arrest of a Congolese militia commander accused in gang rapes of more than 300 people, an easy and rare catch that happened only when he was handed over by fellow fighters.
Sadoke Kokunda Mayele is accused of leading some 200 fighters in the atrocities in eastern Congo, but fell foul of his Mai-Mai militia because his own leader's family members were among those assaulted.
"His group claimed that he had tarnished their name and that whatever he did was not under their instructions and that they wanted to get rid of him," Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, head of the U.N. mission in Congo's North Kivu province, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Mayele was handed over Tuesday by his comrades-in-arms at Irameso, the U.N. official said. Irameso is among several mining villages in the Walikale district that are controlled by rebels. Congo's massive mineral resources long have fueled the conflict in eastern Congo.
The United Nations said 303 civilians – 235 women, 13 men, 52 girls and 3 boys – were raped in 13 villages between July 30 and Aug. 2. Even in eastern Congo, where rape has become a daily hazard and some women have been sexually assaulted repeatedly over the years, the numbers were shocking.
Margot Wallstrom, responsible for U.N. efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict, called Mayele's arrest "a victory for justice" and "a signal to all perpetrators of sexual violence that impunity for these types of crimes is not accepted and that justice will prevail."
But Jason Stearns, former analyst for the International Crisis Group and an expert on Congo, said "a sea-change of behavior" will happen only when commanders take responsibility for the behavior of their soldiers.
He said several commanders whose men committed the rapes in Walikale have close ties to officers in the Congolese military and that such alliances allow perpetrators to continue operating.
Mayele was an officer in the Congolese army before he joined the Mai-Mai militia led by Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi, known as Commander Sheka. A nurse who treated 124 of the rape victims including some in Sheka's home village of Binyampuri told The Associated Press that one of Sheka's wives, two sisters and three of his cousins were among those attacked.
Sheka initially denied his fighters were involved. In an interview with Radio Kivu 1 last month, he blamed FDLR rebels led by Rwandan Hutu perpetrators of that neighboring country's 1994 genocide.
But victims told doctors they were attacked by a mixed group of fighters from the Mai-Mai Sheka, FDLR and some army deserters who had fought in a Congolese Tutsi rebellion before being integrated into the army last year. The U.N. said about 200 fighters from the three groups were involved.
Sellassie said Mayele, who was handed to military justice officials, had been identified by name by several rape victims.
The attacks occurred within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of a U.N. base of Indian peacekeepers, causing international outrage and raising questions about the ability of a billion-dollar-a-year mission to fulfill its primary mandate of protecting civilians.
It took days for help to arrive, even though a peacekeeping patrol escorted commercial trucks through one of the villages, Luvungi, while it was held by the fighters. A U.N. report said the patrol noticed signs of looting but took no action because no one told them what was going on. The soldiers were not accompanied by an interpreter, and few peacekeepers speak the local languages.
The U.N. mission promised to work strenuously to bring the rapists to justice.
"This is just the beginning, we are hoping and will try to get more arrests, which is not an easy endeavor," Sellassie said.
U.N. east Congo spokesman Leocadio Salmeron said he believes the last belligerent whom the U.N. helped arrest on rape charges probably was a Katanga militia commander captured in May 2006. Nick Birnback, a New York-based spokesman for U.N. peacekeeping, said he believed it was in Ituri, a district that was pacified in 2006.
Sellassie and Birnback said arrests for other criminal charges take place regularly.
In an interview with the AP in Kinshasa, Information Minister Lambert Mende called Mayele "the person responsible for this military operation" in the attacked villages.
"The pursuit doesn't stop there. We are going to draw up a list of all the people implicated in the crimes of Walikale who followed Mayele's example so that justice can be rendered," Mende said.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, and Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.