Congo Warlord's Arrest Puts Gorillas' Future in Turmoil

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Likening Virunga and its crowd-pleasing apes to natural resources, Nkunda said, "In other places they have petrol. We have the gorillas. The park is like our petrol; the gorillas are our fuel.

"These gorillas will remain and the national park will remain forever. We have to protect them."

Reversal of Fortune

The arrest marks a startling reversal of fortune for Nkunda, who had been considered the key power broker in the long-running conflict in eastern Congo.

A former general in the Congolese army, Nkunda, who is an ethnic Tutsi, took up arms several years ago against Congo's government, claiming it wasn't doing enough to protect minority Tutsis from the Hutu militias who had fled to Congo in the wake of Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Late last year fighting between Nkunda's rebels and Congolese forces displaced more than 250,000 people.

But in recent weeks the rebel movement has suffered intense infighting. Nkunda has come under increasing criticism from his own deputies, some of whom accused him of being too authoritarian.

Nkunda was recently sidelined in a deal between the Rwandan and Congolese governments to jointly launch military operations to hunt down Hutu militia groups operating in Congo. This week about 4,000 Rwandan soldiers entered Congo as part of that campaign.

Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende Omalanga told the BBC he welcomed Nkunda's arrest.

"I think it is a good achievement for peace and security in this area and this region of Great Lakes," he said.

Congo's government had issued an international warrant against Nkunda in 2005 for alleged war crimes and human rights abuses.

Shifting Territories

In recent days Congolese government troops and CNDP rebels have been seen together on the ground throughout the region.

"There's been a very dramatic shift over the last 48 hours … the Congolese government forces have established authority over [the area]," said de Merode, the Virunga park director.

Congolese government forces have been accused in the past of taking part in the illegal charcoal trade, which represents a major threat to the mountain gorillas and their habitat. Much of the charcoal is made from old-growth forest harvested inside Virunga National Park.

It is unclear exactly who is now in charge militarily in the Virunga region.

De Merode plans to travel Saturday to Rutshuru, a former rebel stronghold near the park, where he will meet with the traditional chief of the area.

"The chief asked me to accompany him to reassure the populations in the central part of the park," de Merode said.

It's been only two months since the rangers returned to the park, and de Merode says it's critically important for them to be able to continue their work.

"The thing about any national park is that it takes many years of hard work to build them up, to recover them, to reestablish them as healthy national parks, but it only takes a few days to destroy them," he said.

"So we have to be there all the time to avoid that happening. At the moment our work is completely uninterrupted by these political events.

But, he added, "the difficulties that we're facing are the same as the ones we'll be facing next week, next month, next year. We just have to keep going."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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