Congo 'Ninja' leader gives nod to disarmament after ceasefire deal

The leader behind an insurgency in the Republic of Congo on Tuesday accepted the principle of laying down arms in his first public appearance since he agreed to a ceasefire last December.

Frederic Bintsamou - also known as Pastor Ntumi - is head of a powerful militia called the Ninjas which launched a revolt in April 2016 in the southern region of Pool, prompting more than 138 000 people to flee their homes.

On December 23, 2017, Bintsamou's group signed a ceasefire deal with the government which was touted as laying the groundwork for peace. In it, Bintsamou committed to "facilitating the collection of weapons held by the ex-combatants" but did not follow up on this, saying he opposed "unilateral" disarmament.

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On Tuesday, Bintsamou and members of a joint panel charged with implementing the deal met at his estate in Pool around 100km southwest of the capital, Brazzaville, an AFP reporter present at the meeting said.

"I come to you to ask you to appeal for peace, to appeal for the collection of arms, because there is no peace without collecting weapons," said Seraphin Ondele, the commission's chairperson, told Bintsamou.

"If we have a weapon and we have decided to make peace, this weapon no longer serves a purpose and we should lay it down," said Bintsamou, his words applauded by his militia, some of whom carried weapons as they guarded his 20 000-square-metre home.

"One can lay down a weapon, but the situation that prompts all of us to take up a weapon has to be resolved," he cautioned.

The disarmament operation was officially launched on August 7 but has not yet got underway.

The scheme aims to collect and incinerate more than 3 000 guns of all calibres, according to the authorities. However, the government and Bintsamou's group still have to agree on the number of people in Pool who should give up their weapons.

Bintsamou, 53, is a long-standing enemy of President Sassou Nguesso, 74, one of the world's longest-serving leaders.

Nguesso, a former paratrooper, served as president of the oil-rich state, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, from 1979 to 1992. He then returned to power in 1997 following a civil war in which he fought Bintsamou.

Pool continued to be the theatre of violence between government forces and the Ninjas until 2003. The rebels demobilised but never went away, and in April 2016, took up arms again after Nguesso was re-elected in a controversial vote.

The 2016-2017 uprising hit the Republic of Congo's key grain-growing region and cut crucial transport routes between Brazzaville and the main oil port at Pointe-Noire, worsening an already dire economic situation for a country affected by a slump in crude prices.