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Three suspects in U.N. experts' killing escape jail in Congo

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Three suspects in the killing of two U.N. investigators in Democratic Republic of Congo escaped from prison overnight, a defense lawyer in the case said on Tuesday.

Evariste Ilunga Lumu, Kanowa Tshiaba and Mbayi Amoxi Tshikangu are on trial accused of participating in the killing of American Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan, a Swede, in March 2017.

The U.N. investigators were probing alleged atrocities during fighting in the central Kasai region between government forces and the local Kamuina Nsapu militia, which prosecutors blame for their deaths.

Ilunga is the only defendant among more than a dozen on trial to have admitted having participated in the killings. An army colonel and an informant for the national intelligence service, the ANR, have also been arrested in connection with the case.

They deny involvement and have not been formally charged over the killings.

Trésor Kabangu, the lawyer for Ilunga and Tshiaba in the trial, which began in June 2017, said the three defendants had escaped from prison in the city of Kananga overnight.

Timothee Mukuntu, Congo’s top military prosecutor, confirmed at a news conference that Ilunga and Tshiaba were among five prisoners who had escaped by climbing over the prison wall during a driving rainstorm. He did not mention Tshikangu.

“It is a tough blow for us that Ilunga Lumu escaped,” said Mukuntu. “We are going to do everything to find him.”

Florence Marchal, spokeswoman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) said the suspects’ escape showed “a dysfunction in the system ... dysfunctions that need to be corrected for justice to be done”.

Reuters and Radio France Internationale (RFI) revealed in December 2017 that the informant who helped Catalan and Sharp plan their fatal trip the day before they left was working at the time for Congo’s intelligence agency (ANR).

Their findings revived questions about what role state agents may have played in the killing. The United Nations and human rights groups have accused government forces of involvement in atrocities in the conflict that Sharp and Catalan were investigating.

The Congolese government has in the past denied any responsibility for mass graves that have been found in the Kasai region, and denied that its troops have systematically used excessive force there.

Catalan’s mother Maria Morseby tweeted: “I’m so disappointed and sad because with Ilunga important information and testimony disappears.”

Reporting by Fiston Mahamba and Aaron Ross; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Sofia Christensen and Gareth Jones