Image: Laurent Nkunda
Roberto Schmidt  /  AFP - Getty Images
Renegade army Gen. Laurent Nkunda stands next to his pet goat "Betty" moments after arriving in his vehicle at his headquarters camp high up in the mountains of North Kivu in Congo on Monday.
updated 11/8/2008 1:18:07 AM ET 2008-11-08T06:18:07

High in the mist-shrouded Mushaki mountains, amid a drenching tropical storm, the rebel leader swept into the crumbling brick farmhouse, his sinewy frame swathed in a red-and-black shawl — dutifully followed by a pet goat called Betty.

Gen. Laurent Nkunda, extolled by supporters as a gift from God, beamed a toothy smile as he shook hands and exuded charm during an interview with The Associated Press.

Nkunda has tried to show the world an image of peace: that he is a responsible, compassionate leader whose only ambition is to bring freedom to his people in the mineral-rich Congo. The rebels are battling Congolese soldiers in a conflict that many fear will spread.

Even as he was giving the interview this week, his fighters an hour's drive away were killing unarmed civilians, looting and burning, according to witnesses and a human rights body. Among those shot in the head: a 25-year-old radio reporter who angered the rebels with his broadcasts.

But there was no way to know that as Nkunda spoke at the mountaintop retreat.

'I have always believed'
The first sound we heard climbing through mud and curtains of rain to Nkunda's camp was a monotonous hum: It was the sound of prayer emanating from a darkened room — a makeshift chapel in one of several brick structures scattered around the jungle.

A drummer started to beat a rhythm, and the congregation of uniformed young men started to sing.

Hours later, when Nkunda finally appeared, he held forth on his religious faith.

"I was born into a Christian family and I have always believed," he said.

Slideshow: Crisis in Congo The man blamed for a 10-week offensive that has forced 250,000 people from their homes as his fighters captured great swaths of eastern Congo says he's a born-again Christian and one-time Adventist pastor who'd rather be teaching than soldiering.

He's often seen wearing a lapel button reading: "Rebels for Christ."

The conflict in eastern Congo is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002, which drew its neighbors into a rush to plunder Congo's mineral wealth.

Nkunda defected from the army in 2004, saying he needed to protect his tiny Tutsi minority from Rwandan Hutu militias. He has since expanded his mission to "liberating" Congo from an allegedly corrupt government.

New clashes between army and rebels erupted Friday just outside Goma near Kibati, where about 45,000 refugees have taken refuge. Thousands fled toward the relative safety of Goma.

Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire last week when his forces reached the outskirts of Goma, but the truce has crumbled.

'We will continue fighting'
On Thursday, Nkunda appeared in crisp U.S. digital camouflage and a bush hat, with an expensive hardwood cane topped in silver.

"We will continue fighting and we will fight all the way to (the capital) Kinshasa," he vowed.

Nkunda, 41, speaks elegant French, the language of Congo's Belgian colonizers, as well as at least three other African languages, and he has no hesitation expounding his views in English.

He is a self-described anthropologist and philosopher who says he wants to change the mentality of Congo's people, which he ways has been polluted by centuries of exploitation and corruption.

"There's a problem here. Everyone is for themselves. We have to learn ... to want to serve our country. There is this lack of love of our country."

Asked how that could be reconciled with the great suffering his latest offensive has brought upon tens of thousands of refugees sleeping in the open or in unsanitary camps, threatened by hunger and disease, he said: "You have to suffer to be free. That is the price of freedom."

Accusations of war crimes
During his four-year rebellion, Nkunda has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Human rights groups for years have asked why Congo's government and U.N. peacekeepers do not arrest him.

Speaking to the AP on Thursday, Nkunda dismissed the allegations: "The International Court conducted investigations and did not and has never found proof against Laurent Nkunda. It's normal for the Congo government to accuse its opponents."

The list of charges cited by Human Rights Watch included a June 3, 2004, case in the eastern Congo town of Bukavu when "Nkunda's soldiers gang-raped a mother in front of her husband and children while another soldier raped her 3-year-old daughter." Amnesty International says his troops have abducted and conscripted children as young as 12.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch and villagers in the eastern Congo town of Kiwanja accused Nkunda's rebels of killing dozens of men in civilian clothes who were suspected of supporting Mai Mai militia against the rebels.

The director of a radio station also said Nkunda's men tracked down one of his reporters, 25-year-old Alfred Ndjondjo Victwahiki Munyamariza, and shot him in the head in his garden in front of his wife and toddler daughter.

'I'm not in this for the money'
Nkunda has been accused of exploiting Congo's mineral resources, but he denies those allegations and says he's not fighting for money. He said he turned down a government offer of $2.5 million last year in return for going into exile in South Africa.

Video: The face of fear in Congo He added: "$50 million wouldn't be enough, I'm not in this for the money. There's the question of the people's destiny. The future of the people of a country ... you can't buy that."

But experts dismiss as fantasy his ambitions of marching on Kinshasa and deposing Congolese President Joseph Kabila — the nation's first freely elected leader in nearly half a century.

Francois Grignon, director of the Africa program of the Nairobi, Kenya-based International Crisis Group, said no Congolese insurgency in the past 10 years has marched to Kinshasa without being helped by the Rwandan or Ugandan army.

"He has what, 4,000 men? It's totally ridiculous," Grignon said.

The United Nations believes Nkunda has 6,500 men; he says he has 10,000.

Mon General
As we waited for Nkunda to arrive on our first evening at the camp, we were led to a "boma," an open sided hut topped by woven banana leaves where rebel officers — some in camouflage, others in track suits and flip flops — offered chunks of local cheese and hot milk.

There were no guns in sight and the air was filled with the chirping of birds hidden in lush vegetation. At first, our hosts were formal and stiff. But as the hours passed, while we waited for the man the rebels called "Mon General," they loosened up.

A man in civilian clothes came in with a few smoldering branches and started a fire on a pile of logs. Soon it was roaring. The rebels pulled their chairs in front of the fire and opened up a circle so we too could share the warmth.

There was one piece of reading material being passed around among the rebels: a battered and dog-eared copy of the penal code of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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