Congo army leaves national park, rebels stay
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — More than 1,000 soldiers have left a national park that has been on the front lines of fighting in eastern Congo in a move the park director said was intended to preserve an environment that is home to endangered gorillas, hippos and active volcanoes.
However, rebels still occupy a sector of the reserve that is home to some of the world's last remaining mountain gorillas, officials said Wednesday.
The decision to move out all government troops and their families — about 6,000 people in all — came after negotiations between Virunga National Park Director Emmanuel de Merode and Gen. Vainqueur Mayala, the army's commanding officer, Merode said in a statement.
The move aims to "reduce human presence in the area and preserve the flora and fauna of Africa's oldest national park," de Merode said.
Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the world, an estimated 380 of them in a range of volcanoes straddling Congo's borders with Uganda and Rwanda. Only 72 are believed to live on the Congo side of the border and 10 of them were killed last year.
The reserve is located in a lawless swath of Congo adjacent to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda that the government has struggled to control for years.
Congolese and Rwandan rebels and militia have hidden in the park's dense forests for more than a decade and used parts of it as bases to launch attacks. Last week, the army and rebels led by Laurent Nkunda exchanged machine-gun and mortar fire outside the reserve in one of the fiercest clashes in the region this year.
The rebels have been accused by wildlife officials of attacking gorillas in the past. But since last year they have taken tourists and some journalists on unauthorized visits to the rare animals. Park rangers have been unable to access the gorilla sector to monitor the apes because rebels have prevented them from entering the area. It is not known how many rebels occupy the area.
"Demilitarizing Virunga National Park remains our greatest and most difficult challenge. The Congolese National Army has taken the first step, which represents a major breakthrough at a time when the threats to the park have never been greater," de Merode said.
Congolese Col. David Kitenge said the army's occupation had been "strategic." The statement said the army had 10,000 soldiers in North Kivu province, about 10 percent of them in the park.
"We had to have a strong presence ... to safeguard the main road north of Goma," the regional capital, and prevent attacks by Rwandan and Congolese rebels, Kitenge said. "Today we wish to support the Congolese Wildlife Authority in their efforts."
Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006, and is still coping with the effects of a 1998-2002 war and Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which saw millions of hungry refugees — including Rwandan militias who remain today — spill across the border. Despite its vast mineral wealth, most people remain deeply poor and desperate.
Established in 1925 as Africa's first national park, Virunga is classified as a U.N. World Heritage Site in 1979.
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