KINSHASA - Jules Mutebusi, a former DR Congo rebel leader often described as a Rwandan proxy, has died in Kigali where he had been exiled for a decade, relatives and officials said Sunday.
"He died on Friday evening in a Kigali hospital. He was 54. It looks like he had been sick, that's what Rwanda is saying," one of Mutebusi's uncles told AFP.
Mutebusi, from the ethnic Tutsi group in the Democratic Republic of Congo's South Kivu region known as Banyamulenge, was a top military leader of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).
In 2004 Laurent Nkunda, another defecting Tutsi Congolese officer, and Mutebusi jointly captured Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, on the grounds that the local population was being persecuted.
After the Congolese army and its allies recaptured the lakeside city, fierce fighting pitted RCD rebels against loyalist forces in the Kamanyola region.
When his forces were defeated, Mutebusi and 300 of his men fled to Rwanda, which Kinshasa had accused of backing the RCD rebellion, including by providing armoured vehicles.
The exact cause of his death were unclear, with no official word from Rwanda and divergent statements from Mutebusi's family and the government in Kinshasa.
"He had been sick for some time... We have not been provided with a medical certificate but officials from his home region have spoken of AIDS," DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende told AFP.
Mutebusi's uncle, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had doubts.
"His wife told me that he had gone to exercise as usual, felt unwell and fallen in a coma, and that she reached hospital when it was already too late," he said.
"It's a great loss for the family but also a source of concern over the circumstances of his death after 10 years of exile and house arrest" in Kigali, the uncle added.
He said Mutebusi had recently expressed fears for his own safety because he had not supported the M23, another Tutsi Congolese group often described as the latest incarnation of the RCD.
The M23, which the United Nations said was a puppet of Rwandan President Paul Kagame's regime, was defeated late last year after an 18-month insurgency in North Kivu.
The fighting included the rebels' brief capture of Goma in 2012, which drew comparisons with the week-long occupation of Bukavu in 2004.
After government forces reclaimed Goma, several of the M23's top leaders fled to Rwanda.
Mutebusi is due to be buried by Tuesday at the latest.
"Rwanda has just told us not to bury him in Kigali but in Gisenyi, we don't know why," the uncle said. Gisenyi lies in western Rwanda, across the Congolese border from Goma.
Later however, he said there had been a "change" and that the family were now authorised to bury Mutebusi in the Rwandan capital, adding that no explanation had been given for the change in the official instructions.