France criticises Congo's democratic record ahead of summit

Tue Oct 9, 2012 1:46pm EDT

* Hollande questions human rights, democracy in DRC

* French leader to attend Francophonie summit in Kinshasa

* Says Eastern Congo facing aggression from outside country

By John Irish

PARIS, Oct 9 (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande called the state of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo "totally unacceptable" on Tuesday, just days before he heads to the country for a summit of French-speaking nations.

Hollande, who travels to Kinshasa on Saturday, has promised a clean break from the murky ties that bound France to former African colonies. He has vowed not to interfere in internal politics as countries make transitions through the ballot box.

But on Tuesday, speaking to reporters in a joint press conference with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, he said he had "worries" about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"The situation in the country is totally unacceptable with regards to rights, democracy and the recognition of the opposition," Hollande said.

Africa's second-largest copper producer lies at the bottom of the U.N.'s development index, a measure of wealth, health and education, after decades of corruption and conflict.

"It's hard, it's unjust and it doesn't conform to the reality in Congo. President Hollande is misinformed," Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said.

He added, however, that the comments would cause "no problems" between Hollande and President Joseph Kabila, who was re-elected in November in elections broadly criticised by observers for fraud and organisational chaos.

Hollande is making his first trip to Africa since his May election and travels to Senegal before arriving in the DRC.

He had debated whether to go to this Friday's summit, a diplomatic source said, because of Congo's human rights situation. In the end, he opted to attend to send a "strong message" rather than leave an empty chair, the source said.

For years, France gave political and military support to African leaders who backed its economic plans, even if that meant ignoring rigged elections or, in the opinion of some critics, influencing them.

OUTSIDE INTERFERENCE

Hollande also warned that the DRC and especially its eastern Kivu province were facing attacks "coming from outside" where a rebellion of army defectors called the M23 has deepened political fissures in Kinshasa. The government and opposition accuse each other of fanning the flames of the distant war.

A grenade explosion in the eastern city of Goma killed one person and injured more than 20, officials said on Tuesday, the latest of a string of deadly attacks.

Congo has accused neighbouring Rwanda of aiding rebels in DRC, allegations Rwandan President Paul Kagame has denied.

The worsening political chaos threatens to undermine Kabila's ability to push through political and economic reforms in Congo, a potential mining and oil giant.

M23 rebels, who have ties to a warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, Bosco Ntaganda, have been fighting government soldiers since April. Some 320,000 civilians have been displaced.

The United Nations said it was working with east and central African states on their proposal for a neutral force to tackle the M23 and other armed groups in eastern Congo.

Hollande said he backed the U.N. plan to strengthen the DRC's frontiers.

Congo and Rwanda have been uneasy neighbors and have previously gone to war against each other. In the past 20 years, Rwanda has backed armed movements in the DRC, citing a need to tackle Rwandan rebels operating out of Congo's eastern hills.

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