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Belgian king starts Congo visit, gives award to WWII veteran

KINSHASA, Congo

Belgium’s King Philippe bestowed a top honor on the last known surviving Congolese veteran of World War II on Wednesday, beginning a six-day visit amid ongoing efforts to atone for colonial-era abuses.

Former Corporal Albert Kunyuku, now 100, was decorated Commander of the Order of the Crown. Enlisted at the age of 18, Kunyuku fought in then-Burma during the Second World War, on behalf of Belgium.

The king also was expected to address Congo’s parliament later in the day and meet with President Felix Tshisekedi.

Congolese government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said this week’s visit by King Philippe and Queen Mathilde would include talks centered around economic cooperation and ongoing reconciliation efforts by the former colonial power.

“There is talk of the restitution of works of art that are a part of our culture,” he said.

Belgium’s current king has gone further than any of his predecessors in expressing his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” inflicted under Belgian rule, which ended in 1960.

Amid anti-colonial sentiment in Congo, statues of Belgian King Leopold II have been removed in recent years.

Leopold, who ruled Belgium from 1865 to 1909, plundered Congo as his personal fiefdom, according to historians, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.

The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labor and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million Congolese dead.

After Leopold’s claimed ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule the colony until the African nation became independent in 1960.

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