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Rare audience with CAR rebel

The BBC's Mike Thomson has a memorable meeting with a rebel commander in the Central African Republic, eventually.

Colonel Maradas Lakoue, with Mike Thomson
Col Lakoue says he commands around 1,500 fighters

As a journalist there are not too many occasions when you are told that if somebody gives you an interview they will immediately be executed and you will be to blame.

It is even rarer when the person making the threat is the boss of the poor unfortunate who would face a death sentence if they dared to open their mouth. To my recollection this has only happened once in my BBC career.

My meeting with Colonel Maradas Lakoue was supposed to be a highlight of my trip to the Central African Republic.

The colonel is a senior commander in the APRD, or Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy.

It is perhaps the largest of the three main rebel movements who have been opposing the government of President Francois Bozize since he first came to power in a 2003 coup.

The colonel claims to command around 1,500 fighters, who control a vast region stretching from the northern town of Kaga Bandoro up to the Sudanese border.

But as we arrived at the colonel's base deep in the bush we were informed that unfortunately our long-arranged chat was off.

The political path didn't work so we had no option but to pick up weapons to try and change things
Colonel Maradas Lakoue

The colonel politely apologised but his hands were tied. The APRD's senior commander, Colonel Laurent Djim Woi, had issued an order that only he could speak for the movement.

To say that this presented a problem would be putting it mildly. Col Laurent's HQ was several days travel in the direction we had just come from. And we did not have time to go back. If the rebels' point of view was to be heard it had to be here.

With some help we tracked Col Laurent down and explained the predicament to him down a crackly satellite telephone line. The rising fury in his voice needed little translation.

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"We are a disciplined organisation. Lakoue is a commander for one of our regional zones. I am the spokesman," he fumed.

"If Lakoue speaks to you he will be executed and it will be on the BBC's conscience!"

That was that. Or so it seemed. Within 90 minutes there had been a rethink of corporate media strategy. Come back tomorrow was the message passed to us. Col Lakoue will speak to you then.

'Sliding backwards'

The next morning we returned to the meeting point, an open-air church in a clearing. When it is a place of worship the congregation sit on log benches arranged in rows before a simple altar marked by tree branches tied together as a cross.

Col Lakoue is an imposing figure, tall with deep tribal scars on his face. He speaks slowly and clearly in a deep sonorous voice.

As he explained the APRD's philosophy his words were noted down by his political advisor and the armed bodyguards strained to hear. I could imagine that under different circumstances he would make a charismatic preacher.

"We took up arms because over the last 50 years this country has been sliding backwards," he said.

"There have been many coups, mutinies and rebellions. And we saw how none of these upheavals brought any progress. So, we took arms in order to fight against poverty, insecurity and bad government.

"This region has been completely neglected. There are no roads, no schools, no community clinics. The region has long been ruled by road bandits."

But, I asked, if violence and instability had got this country nowhere, surely he should be pursuing democratic routes to get progress.

"The political path didn't work so we had no option but to pick up weapons to try and change things," he replied.

Rebel leaderAwash with gunsWarlordAbandoned villageWidow villageHumanitarian disaster Read Mike Thomson's reports from Central African Republic

Rights abuses

Since we spoke it has become apparent that the rebels and the government may be treading the political path together after all.

This week at peace talks in the capital, Bangui, a tentative agreement has been reached that could see President Bozize and his armed opponents - including the APRD - form a government of national unity.

The idea is that it would rule until elections scheduled for 2010.

Col Lakoue's hunting and fishing brigades
Col Lakoue says his troops are largely self-sufficient

One thing that the rebel groups and the government do already share is an appalling human rights record. Both sides are accused of murdering and torturing civilians.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says it is of "immediate and continuing concern" that there exists "a culture of impunity" which allows state and rebel forces to avoid any sanction for these crimes.

Col Lakoue insists his hands are clean. There were harsh penalties, he told me, for any of his fighters who harmed civilians.

"All APRD soldiers are forbidden from killing others in our force or civilians. When anyone is found to have committed a crime of this type we have him executed immediately," he said.

'Share the suffering'

Which is not to say that he does not make demands of the local population.

A child peeks out from behind its mother (file image)
The rebel leader says the government has failed to tackle regional poverty
"Of course we tax people using the roads here," he said. "How else could we buy ammunition and medicines? In return we protect villages from bandits.

"Thanks to us people are able to use the roads in the first place. These taxes also enable our soldiers to survive."

The colonel insists the levies are reasonable. And he is keen to show that his men are not taking advantage - so much so that a group of armed men and women were ushered into the clearing.

Along with Kalashnikovs and homemade rifles, they also carried fishing nets and baskets of dried fish. A truly bizarre sight.

These were, I was told, elements of the colonel's hunting, fishing and farming brigades. Units within the force that allow the rebels to remain largely self sufficient in feeding themselves.

Privately some in the international aid community say that they believe the colonel is making genuine efforts to improve the lives of people in this obscure region of this under-developed country.

The colonel is a former farmer himself. He says that is the life he hopes to retire to if his goals are met.

"I was the first here to start the rebellion and I will be the last one to give it up, " he said.

"If peace does come I will put down my gun but if it doesn't I will stay here for as long as necessary. So yes, if our aims are achieved I may go and live in the town in a nice house.

"But, if not, I'll stay here in the bush sharing the suffering of all the people in this region."

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