Sixteen aid workers were abducted on Sunday in North Kivu in the town of Katwiguru, about 120 kilometers northeast of Goma. Two women were released but 14 others are still being held, according to the Rural Development Centre, better known by its French acronym Cederu, a World Food Programme (WFP) partner NGO.
Hostage-takers have asked for ransom payments, according to WFP official Pablo Recalde.
Two Concern Worldwide workers, a Congolese citizen and a British national, were abducted in a separate incident on the outskirts of Kibua on Friday. They were held for a few hours and released unharmed, according to Concern’s international programme director, Anne O’Mahony.
The four armed men who took the Concern workers – but not their vehicle -- have yet to be identified. It’s unclear if they were engaged in an act of banditry or were under the orders of a rebel commander.
“It was a group of rebels,” O’Mahony said in a phone interview from Concern’s headquarters in Dublin. “But we’re not sure if they were operating on their own or if they were part of a bigger plan. This is a question we will look at in our follow-up assessment.”
The abductions come against a backdrop of heightened political tensions in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital.
The opposition has accused President Joseph Kabila of trying to postpone critical presidential and parliamentary elections due next year in an unconstitutional bid to hang on to power.
Past election periods have brought about heightened tensions because some politicians see chaos as a business opportunity, according to Michael Tshibangu, president of the Alliance for Development and Democracy in Congo.
“When law and order breaks down it facilitates smuggling,” said Tshibangu in an interview. “Politicians and businessmen benefit. So do the militias that are [working] for them.”
Rebels in DRC and neighbouring countries in the Great Lakes, including the notorious FDLR, have for decades abducted civilians, including children, to enrol them in their rag-tag forces.
But at least one insurgency, the Uganda-based Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), has been known to generate income with kidnappings in North Kivu.
It’s still “highly speculative” however to suggest that the latest kidnappings stem from the ongoing political crisis in Kinshasa, according to DRC researcher Christoph Vogel, or to pin them on a specific rebel army.
“It may be smaller groups of bandits rather than one large armed militia,” he said in a phone interview from Bukavu. “Although we’re very close to FDLR territory it seems unlikely that the FDLR would be doing these kidnappings.”
In a region teeming with dozens of militias, it is feared that kidnapping-for-ransom could be used by newcomers as a tool to fund their operations.
“New groups are developing,” WFP’s Recalde told RFI. “We don’t have details on their membership but I tend to think that they are resorting to banditry to develop their capacities in the region.”
Ever since M23 rebels, which roamed North Kivu with the support of neighbouring Rwanda, have been defeated, the Congolese forces have been unable to fully assert their authority in an area that is in many ways a political and security vacuum.
“The government should be making sure that everybody’s safe but that’s not the case,” said Fidel Bafilemba, who’s with the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group, in a phone interview from Goma. “I’m afraid that people are going to start thinking that they were better off under the M23. They were horrendous human rights violators but at least under the M23 this type of kidnapping was not going on.”
Political tensions are rife in Kinshasa with the president and opposition at loggerheads over constitutional change.
The constitution bars Kabila, who came to power in 2001, from seeking a third elected five-year term at the end of his mandate late next year, but he has yet to comply with opposition demands to publicly state that he will not to run again.
The DRC has endured political tension since Kabila's contested re-election in 2011. None of the votes that were scheduled to be held since then have gone ahead.
Concern, which has been working in North Kivu since 1994, is reviewing its operations in the vicinity of Kibua. “It’s not going to affect our work in North Kivu,” said O’Mahony. “We have a large and committed staff. It will make us review our security procedures. I don’t think we have much to adjust but we will be looking.”
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