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Texan outfit seeks to combat DR Congo rebels with leaflets, reward

By Alexis HUGUET - AFP
Congo Caleb Weiss of the US-based Bridgeway Foundation drops leaflets over strongholds of the ADF rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo urging its fighters to surrender.  By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP)
SAT, 25 MAY 2024 LISTEN
Caleb Weiss of the US-based Bridgeway Foundation drops leaflets over strongholds of the ADF rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo urging its fighters to surrender. By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP)

Caleb Weiss sits on the edge of an open-doored helicopter above the dense rainforest in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tensions rise among the crew as the aircraft flies low over the impenetrable canopy, within gunshot range of a fierce rebel group that has been conducting fatal attacks on villages in the area for a decade.

For almost an hour, the tattooed American in a bullet proof vest scatters leaflets from the chopper urging the ADF rebel group to surrender.

Weiss works for the US-based Bridgeway Foundation, which describes itself as the charitable arm of a Texan investment firm and says it focuses on "preventing, ending and helping communities recover from violence".

It first launched air operations in early April.

The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) -- which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group in 2019 -- is blamed for attacks across the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, near the DRC's border with Uganda.

The United Nations says they have killed thousands of civilians, many in the most brutal fashion.

The helicopter flies over the Beni, Irumu and Lambasa areas, where ADF fighters have set up camps.

ADF rebels operate in the DRC and to a lesser extent in Uganda, where most of the group's leaders originate.  By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP) ADF rebels operate in the DRC and to a lesser extent in Uganda, where most of the group's leaders originate. By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP)

Many of the small colourful leaflets Weiss scatters over the treetops show smiling photos said to be of former ADF members who have been "deradicalised" and reintegrated into society.

On the back is a map of the region showing meeting points for fighters wanting to leave and "return home" and the promise of "government assistance".

One type of leaflet is different from the others.

Weiss says Bridgeway doesn't want AFP to photograph it because, he explains, people could think the foundation works for the US government.

Reward for information

This flyer carries a US flag, a telephone number and a promise of a $5-million reward for anyone providing information on ADF leader Seka Musa Baluku, whose photo it bears.

There has been a bounty on his head ever since the United States placed the ADF on the list of IS-affiliated organisations.

The rebels, who number in their hundreds, operate in the DRC and to a lesser extent in Uganda, where most of the group's leaders originate.

IS considers the ADF its Central African wing and has claimed responsibility for almost a hundred attacks there since the start of 2024 alone.

The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) -- which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group in 2019 -- is blamed for attacks across the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, near the DRC's border with Uganda.  By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP) The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) -- which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group in 2019 -- is blamed for attacks across the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, near the DRC's border with Uganda. By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP)

That number is still below the figure given by Congolese security forces and civilian groups.

In April alone, they say more than 100 people have been killed and dozens kidnapped.

The Bridgeway Foundation is working alongside Congolese and Ugandan military intelligence to track down Baluku and other ADF leaders.

But tensions between the two African armies have complicated operations.

The Ugandan army has sent thousands of soldiers into the area since the end of 2021.

They are officially cooperating with Congolese forces (FARDC) to neutralise the ADF under a joint operation called Shujaa -- Swahili for "brave".

But several security sources told AFP that trust between the two armies is almost non-existent.

Ugandan soldiers have conducted operations and set up bases without telling the FARDC, which has on several occasions led to the Congolese soldiers being killed or wounded, they said.

Children in the firing line

Congolese rumba plays in the background of a hospital operating theatre in Beni, where surgeons from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Congolese health ministry treat one wounded person after another.

In a nearby ward lies a 13-year-old boy, his chest and abdomen swathed in bandages.

The United Nations says ADF rebels have killed thousands of civilians, many in the most brutal fashion.  By Alexis Huguet (AFP) The United Nations says ADF rebels have killed thousands of civilians, many in the most brutal fashion . By Alexis Huguet (AFP)

He is surrounded by wounded men, mostly victims of ADF attacks.

Medical staff asked AFP not to talk to the teenager.

"He's an ADF combatant," they said, seemingly fearful that the rebels would come and take him away by force.

In a video filmed a few days earlier, the boy is seen lying on the ground, his side covered by a blood-stained bandage, being grilled by Congolese soldiers who film him on their phones.

He struggles to breathe or move.

He says he was kidnapped from a village far to the south and forced by ADF leaders to undergo "military training" and indoctrination.

"What about the little kid who died? Do you know him?" asks one of the soldiers of a young "fighter" killed during the same military operation.

"No. We ended up together but I don't know him," the wounded boy says in a thin, wavering voice.

"We were going towards the (ADF) camp when we crossed your path and you firing at us."

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