Zaida Catalan and Michael Sharp
United Nations investigators Zaida Catalan (L) and Michael Sharp (R) were kidnapped by unidentified men as they investigated reports of human rights violation in Kasai Central province, DRC Human Rights Watch

Former Congolese minister Clément Kanku has been accused of inciting violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)'s restive Kasai region following the discovery of a taped phone-call in which he is overheard talking to a subordinate, discussing setting fire to a town in the region.

The brutal conflict in the previously peaceful Kasai region erupted in August 2016 when government forces killed Kamuina Nsapu, a tribal chief who was leading a rebellion against President Joseph Kabila.

As the UN documented dozens of mass grave sites in Kasai, it sent two experts, American Michael Sharp and Swede Zaida Catalan, to investigate human rights violations in the region. They went missing on 12 March and their bodies were discovered weeks later in a shallow grave.

One day after the military court announced the start of a trial against men suspected of being involved in the murder of two UN experts, the New York Times (NYT) newspaper revealed that Catalan's laptop contained 130 documents proving the involvement of Kanku, former Minister for Cooperation and Development, in the massacres perpetrated in Kasai.

MP for Dibaya in Kasai, Kanku, who has close links to the militia fighters, had been brought in by Kabila's government last year to quash the Kamuina Nsapu insurrection.

'It's good that we burn everything; that is good news'

Among the documents collected by Catalan is a recorded phone conversation in which Kanku appears to discuss setting fire to the town of Tshimbulu, as well as targeted assassinations of an army colonel and other officials. Tshimbulu is the capital of Dibaya territory, one of the epicentres of the popular Kamuina Nsapu insurgency.

"We burnt Tshimbulu," Kanku's interlocutor is heard saying in the recording that was leaked on social media.

"It's good that we burn everything; that is good news," Kanku adds.

"The colonel is in his house, and we're burning down the house so he burns to death," the subordinate says.

"Did you kill the colonel's bodyguards?" Kanku then asks.

"Yes, we beat his bodyguards on the head with our batons," the subordinate answers.

Citing sources familiar with the case, NYT alleged that Kanku had known Catalan had the audio recording, and that she had scheduled to discuss the matter with him after her trip into the bush. Contacted by NYT, Kanku initially denied before affirming he had been in contact with the murdered UN experts.

Kanku, who was elected MP for Dibaya in 2006 before he was re-elected in 2011, told local media he would comment on the accusations later today (22 May). It is still unclear how Kinshasa will react to these revelations.