Who Are the Rebels Accused of Killing U.N. Investigators in Congo?

Bones in Congo grave
Human skulls suspected to belong to victims of a recent combat between the army and the Kamwina Nsapu militia in Tshimaiyi near Kananga, the capital of Central Kasai province of Congo, on March 12. The conflict has claimed hundreds of lives since 2016. Aaron Ross/Reuters

Since violence broke out between Kamwina Nsapu rebels and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo in August 2016 at least 600 people have been killed, 216,000 displaced and U.N. investigators have discovered 40 mass graves.

Now the Kamwina Nsapu—who wear red arm and headbands and carry amulets into battle that they believe makes them invincible—are accused of being behind the kidnapping and murder of two U.N. workers.

Congolese authorities showed footage to journalists in the capital Kinshasa on Monday that allegedly shows the Kamwina Nsapu rebels executing Zaida Catalan, a dual Swedish-Chilean national, and Michael Sharp, an American, whose bodies were discovered in a mass grave in the restive Kasai-Central province on March 31.

They said that the footage disproved allegations that the security forces had been involved in the killings.

The pair had been working as part of the U.N. Group of Experts on Congo and were in the region to investigate a bloody conflict between the Armed Forces of DRC (FARDC) and Kamwina Nsapu militiamen..

The conflict began in Kasai-Central in August 2016, after the leader of the group—who is known as Kamwina Nsapu but was born as Jean-Pierre Mpandi—was killed by government forces.

Mpandi had been calling for an armed rebellion against the government led by President Joseph Kabila after authorities refused to recognize his appointment as Kamuina Nsapu in 2011.

Although the chieftaincy position is apolitical, the Kamuina Nsapu is sometimes pressured to align with the s tate in order to maintain their position and authority.

"The government tried to install a leadership more favorable to Kabila's regime as Mpandi had long been a critic of the government," Phil Clark, reader in international politics at London's Soas University, tells Newsweek .

Mpandi vowed to rid Kasai-Central province of all state security forces, whom he accused of abusing the local population and withholding a large share of the state's wealth, according to conflict monitor group ACAPS. After Mpandi's death, his followers founded the Kamuina Nsapu militia group.

The Congolese government has branded Kamwina Nsapu a terrorist organization. The group has been accused of killing civilians, recruiting hundreds of child soldiers and targeting state agents, government premises and public buildings, including schools and churches.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has said the conflict could warrant an investigation into crimes against humanity and war crimes.

"The targeting of the U.N. investigators was not only designed to stop them uncovering the militia's crimes but to show their power to the national government and the U.N. peacekeeping mission," Clark says.

The U.N. mission in DRC (MONUSCO) has condemned the group for the atrocities committed, including the execution of children, as well as government forces for their "disproportionate use of force" in response to the situation.

There are fears that the insurgency, originally confined to the Kasai-Central province, might spill over into neighboring provinces as local grievances have been further exacerbated by political tensions.

The country is experiencing unrest and growing tensions after it failed to hold general elections in November 2016 and President Kabila remained in his office after his mandate expired last December.

"The creation of the militia is linked to growing discontent with Kabila's government. This has been exacerbated by Kabila's refusal to step down as president and stick to the timetable for national elections," says Clark.