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By Christian Tsoumou
BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Gunmen have stepped up banditry and rapes in Congo Republic's Pool region, witnesses and officials said on Thursday, in a wave of insecurity that has broken a period of relative calm after a decade of instability.
The Pool region is key for the country's transport links as it lies between the capital, Brazzaville, and the oil port town of Pointe-Noire. It also borders fertile land Congo may put aside as part of a farm deal planned with South Africa.
Attacks by gunmen have increased over the last few weeks even though dreadlocked rebel fighters, known as Ninjas, who waged a 1998-2002 rebellion, were meant to have joined disarmament programmes after their leader, Pastor Frederic Ntoumi, was offered a government job last year.
"Last Saturday, our truck was stopped early in the morning at a roadblock manned by Ninjas at the entry to Kinkala (the capital of the Pool region)," said driver Balise Kodia.
"There were six of them who were joined by three others, also heavily armed. They took our telephones and demanded 100,000 CFA francs (139 pounds)," he said. "We paid them 70,000 CFA and carried along on the way."
The insecurity adds to headaches caused by dilapidated roads and erratic trains, which are the only options for those who need to travel or ship goods the 500 km between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire but cannot afford airfares.
"Ninjas robbed passengers on the train that we were taking on Tuesday. I was lucky and was able to hide my phone," passenger Colette Bika told Reuters of an attack this week.
Employees of the Congo Ocean Railway Line (CFCO), which runs the link between the capital and the coast, were chased by gunmen from the station in Massembo Loubaki earlier this month, "La Semaine Africaine," a Catholic newspaper, reported.
PRESIDENT DEMANDS ACTION
Having won another seven-year term in power this July, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso has called on his government to draw up a strategy to tackle robberies, rapes and roadblocks.
A multi-million-hectare farm deal, due to be completed later this month with South Africa's main farmers' union, appears to be a key part of Congo's aim to cut food imports by modernising the oil-dependent nation's agriculture sector.
No areas have been earmarked by the government but Pool borders on Bouenza and Lekoumou regions, fertile agricultural areas analysts say could be home to some of the land let out to the South Africans to cultivate crops and raise animals.
Ntoumi, who led the campaign against the army but was offered a government job in 2008 after years of life as a bush rebel, denied his men were responsible
"I am not responsible for the acts being carried out by the former Ninjas," he told reporters, adding he had disarmed his force, collected some 4,000 weapons from his fighters and formed a political party.
Some 10,000 fighters have signed up to World Bank-sponsored disarmament programmes since Congo's various conflicts ended but they have struggled in Pool, where many youths have kept their weapons and are involved in growing and smoking marijuana.
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Janet Lawrence)