Armed group in northeast Congo says to lay down weapons

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - An armed group in northeast Congo known for using fetishes to protect its fighters said on Monday it would lay down its arms and end attacks against civilians and the army, weeks after its leader was killed and other senior figures arrested.

The new leader of the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO), Ngabu Ngawi Olivier, called on the army to enact a ceasefire to allow talks with the government, a potential breakthrough for President Felix Tshisekedi who has promised to bring an end to decades of unrest in the region.

Olivier did not give a date when CODECO would halt violence.

In recent weeks intense fighting in Djugu Territory in northern Ituri province has forced thousands of people from their homes, complicating the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and an Ebola epidemic that has killed more than 2,200 people.

“We are a peaceful sect and war does not benefit us,” Olivier told Reuters by telephone.

“We took up arms to protect ourselves against attacks by the (army) and other religious communities on our followers. But now I think it is no longer important to continue killing civilians or attacking the army.”

Last week the army said an operation to uproot CODECO, which is drawn from the Lendu ethnic group, was gaining ground following the killing of its leader Justin Ngondjolu in late March.

Jean-Bosco Lalo, civil society coordinator of Ituri province, said the ceasefire was unexpected but a welcome opportunity to bring peace to the area.

“It is a first since the massacres began and we pray to God that it will be a success,” Lalo said. “It remains to be seen whether he will be understood by all the militiamen.”

Founded in 1978 as an agricultural cooperative, researchers say CODECO produced mystical potions that fighters believed protected them during previous conflicts in the area.

Little is known about the secretive group which took up arms itself in recent years and which local rights groups accuse of killing hundreds of civilians.

Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman