Congo's Kabila appoints army chief under U.S., EU sanctions for alleged violence

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo’s President Joseph Kabila has appointed a new army chief who is under international sanctions for the violent repression of dissent, raising fears of an imminent crackdown.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila addresses a news conference at the State House in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo

State television reported on Sunday that Kabila had appointed General John Numbi to the role of inspector general of the Congolese Armed Forces. Numbi has been placed under sanctions by the United States, European Union and Switzerland for alleged killings of scores of civilians by forces controlled by him over several years.

His promotion was part of a reshuffle which also saw General Gabriel Amisi, himself under sanctions for abuses and for selling weapons to rebel groups responsible for massacring civilians, promoted to army deputy chief of staff.

Another senior general, Celestin Mbala, was named army chief of staff, state TV reported.

The changes come as Congo eyes an election on Dec. 23, across a vast central African country convulsed by violent militia groups and riven by a dispute over Kabila’s refusal to step aside when his mandate expired at the end of 2016.

The constitution in theory bars Kabila, in power since his father was assassinated in 2001, from running for a third elected term. But he has declined to commit to stepping aside, and security forces have killed scores of protesters for taking to the streets to insist that he does.

Some of his allies are now publicly arguing that he has the right to run again. Marches organized by the Catholic church earlier this year were met with teargas and gunfire.

Kabila removed Numbi as police chief in 2010, following an outcry over his alleged involvement in the killing in police custody of human rights activist Floribert Chebeya. But he has since been informally in control of several divisions of the security forces implicated in violence.

When the United States sanctioned him, they accused him of using “violent intimidation” to secure victories for pro-Kabila gubernatorial candidates in March 2016 provincial elections.

He has remained an influential advisor, and Kabila quietly restored him to an official post in the armed forces last year.

Amisi, known by his former radio call sign “Tango Four”, was also suspended by Kabila from his position as commander of Congo’s ground forces in November 2012 after U.N. experts accused him of supplying weapons to rebels and criminal gangs.

But he was reappointed to the military less than two years later, and units under his command have crushed demonstrations, including January 2015 protests in which at least 42 people were killed, the United States said when sanctioning him.

Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba, weeks after his conviction for war crimes was quashed at The Hague, was nominated by his party on Friday for December’s presidential vote, in what could be the stiffest challenge to Kabila’s ruling coalition, although it is unclear if he will be able to run.

He finished runner-up to Kabila in a 2006 election that touched off street battles in Kinshasa between militiamen loyal to him and state forces.

Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Toby Chopra