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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most war-ravaged regions in the world. Armed militias stalk the lush forests committing all sorts of atrocities against villagers in the name of this or that ideology. Now, the DRC is in the midst of more mayhem. A rebel group known as M23 has carved out a kingdom for itself.

And NPR's John Burnett paid them a visit.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A notorious group of human rights violators is how the U.N. human rights commissioner describes them. Reportedly led by a Tutsi warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court, the M23 Movement has been accused of rape, murder, and child soldier recruitment. They control a piece of eastern Congo larger than Delaware, full of clear plunging rivers, endless arbors of banana plants and desperately poor villagers. The U.N. accuses neighboring Rwanda of backing the rebels, a charge Rwanda denies.

The M23 is working hard to create a kinder, gentler image of itself through a website, daily press releases and invitations to journalists to come see for themselves.

CROWD: (Singing) Hallelujah...

BURNETT: On a Sunday morning, a Catholic congregation sings hosannas while a column of militiamen, shouldering assault rifles and an oboe-shaped grenade launcher, patrols the main street of Rutshuru. The rebels are trying to show that they can administer this and other settlements in neglected North Kivu Province better than the central government in Kinshasa.

M23's spokesman is Colonel Vianney Kazarama.

COLONEL VIANEY KAZARAMA: (Through Translator) When you look at the whole of DRC, there is high stakes of corruption, there's no proper leadership, there's no proper governance of the people. So for them, in this territory they have taken, they want to stop the issues of corruption. They want to govern the people within the law. That's what they're intending to do.

BURNETT: Which is a mouthful coming from this particular group of men with guns. M23 is made up of soldiers and officers who deserted the Congolese Army earlier this year over a variety of grievances. Human rights investigators say the insurgents are a retread of an earlier rebel band that operated in this same sector a few years ago. They extorted tradesmen, abused civilians and answered to the now-fugitive General Bosco "The Terminator" Ntaganda, who's wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

KAZARAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Kazarama vehemently denies Ntaganda is their commander.

What do the locals say about M23? It depends on where you talk to them.

EMANUEL: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: A stationery shop owner named Emanuel, on Rutshuru's main street, says in the month since M23 took over, the rebels have repaired the town water tank and its generator. A half-dozen store owners interviewed said the rebels are not mistreating people.

The story is rather different here in the transit camp across the border in Uganda, run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Forty thousand people fleeing North Kivu have passed through here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

BURNETT: Evacuees sleep in big white relief tents, cook pots of corn mush on fire pits of volcanic rocks and, to a person, they condemn M23.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: A group of young men say they ran away because M23 forcibly recruits fighting-age youths into its ranks. One shows the identify card of his dead older brother he says was shot in the head when he ran.

A short distance away, a fleshy woman in a blue headscarf named Nyira speaks up.

NYIRA: (Through Translator) They go to a man's house and ask him for money. And if he does not have it, they beat him up and rape the woman. That's what they do.

BURNETT: The weary villagers of eastern Congo have a long history of abusive treatment. From 1998 to 2003, the DRC, then Zaire, descended into a civil war in which nine African nations and some 20 armed groups fought each other. The war is believed to have killed millions, not from fighting, but from disease and malnutrition. Despite a peace accord in 2003, the conflict never really ended in the east. The fear today is that the emergence of the M23 will reignite a wider regional conflict.

Frederick Golooba, a Ugandan political scientist with expertise in the African Great Lakes region, says it's simplistic to say that M23 is motivated by power and brigandry, as other militias are.

FREDERICK GOLOOBA: The M23, at least from the claims they make, and which can be backed up by some historical evidence, are motivated by a desire to protect their community. Because they are Tutsis.

BURNETT: Much of the violence that continues to convulse eastern Congo has its roots in Tutsi-Hutu hatred that led to the Rwanda genocide. M23's command is largely composed of Tutsi officers who seized this territory to protect the interests of their ethnic group, says Jason Stearns, an author and analyst who studies armed groups in the region.

JASON STEARNS: But certainly in private, they're telling people the only way we can really maintain our interests - economic, political, security - is to have our own country.

BURNETT: Despite its public relations, M23 will have a hard time building international sympathy for an autonomous Tutsi state within the DRC. Human Rights Watch is releasing a report on M23 that documents cases of executions of civilians, rape and torture whose victims are mainly Hutus.

What's more, the U.N. reports that M23 has made alliances with other renegade militias far outside of its territory, to create a united rebel front against the Congolese government. Regional security ministers are meeting in Uganda this week to decide a course of action to try and avert a widening war in eastern Congo.

John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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