Fears rise of wider conflict in DRC

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s warring rivals traded accusations that Angola, Zimbabwe and
Rwanda are mobilising forces to fight in the DRC, as the prime minister flew into this besieged city to assess fighting that has displaced a
quarter million people.

The accusations of foreign involvement, reminiscent of the DRC’s disastrous 1998 to 2002 war that drew in eight African nations, stoked fears of a wider conflict in this mineral-rich nation.

The fighting has forced tens of thousands of refugees to struggle through the countryside, lugging belongings and children. Tropical rainstorms, which drench eastern DRC every day, have added to their misery.

On Tuesday, downpours sent refugees rushing to tents and huts made of woven banana leaves, while others huddled under plastic sheeting as they trudged through the thick red mud.

In Kibati, a camp for the displaced just north of Goma, aid workers from Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps gave water and high-energy biscuits to thousands of hungry children lined up in the searing heat.

Outside the distribution centre, thousands of children who had not received the tokens needed to receive the food shoved and pushed, holding their hands out, eyes wide with desperation.

”The people here don’t have food and they are hungry,” said Oxfam’s Rebecca Wynn. ”Some people are going into the banana fields around the camp, which is very dangerous because there are drunk soldiers around.

They’re risking their lives, but they are hungry and desperate.”

Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito arrived in Goma just before dusk on Tuesday with half his Cabinet and met with UN envoy Alan Doss and UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy as well as local officials. He planned to meet with refugees on Wednesday to assess the humanitarian crisis in the region.

Despite a week-old cease-fire, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda’s Rwandan-backed rebels vowed insurgents would march on the capital, Kinshasa, after the government refused Nkunda’s demand for direct
talks.

”If they won’t negotiate with us, then they leave us little choice,” rebel spokesperson Bertrand Bisimwa said. ”We will start fighting again and we will continue until we take Kinshasa.”

Communications Minister Lambert Mende said President Joseph Kabila’s administration was ”open for dialogue” with all rebel and militia groups in the region — but would not meet Nkunda’s group alone.

The DRC government’s first priority is to ”normalise our relations with all our neighbours, above all Rwanda,” Mende added.

Fears of a wider conflict added urgency to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s attempts to bring Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame together for talks. Kagame is believed to wield strong influence over the Tutsi-led rebels.

A UN official said Ban was considering leaving for an African Union summit on Thursday on the crisis in Nairobi, Kenya, to be attended by Kagame and Kabila. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no official announcement has been made.

The rebels on Tuesday accused close Congo ally Angola and Zimbabwe of mobilising to back government forces against the Tutsi fighters,
while the government — backed by reports from UN peacekeepers — has said Rwanda is helping the insurgents.

The groundwork ”is being laid for a generalised war in the region … foreign troops [are] preparing to make war against us,” said rebel spokesperson Bisimwa.

Zimbabwe strongly denied any military involvement. Two Angolan Foreign Ministry officials also denied Angolan troops were in the DRC.

The conflict in eastern Congo can be traced to festering ethnic hatreds left over from the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed a half-million Tutsis and sent more than a million refugees spilling across the border.

Rwanda invaded the DRC twice in the 1990s to hunt down Hutu militiamen who fled there after taking part in the mass slaughter.

The war ripped the DRC into rival fiefdoms, with rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda controlling vast swaths of territory rich in coffee, gold and tin. Angola and Zimbabwe sent tanks and fighter planes to back the DRC’s government in exchange for access to lucrative diamond and copper mines.

Though Rwanda has denied any military involvement in the latest fighting, the UN says Uruguayan peacekeepers saw Rwandan artillery fire into the DRC last week as Nkunda’s forces advanced.

Uruguayan army chief General Jorge Rosales said intelligence reports indicated Rwandan troops were already ”integrated in the rebel forces”.

The rebels, meanwhile, claimed on Tuesday that Angolan troops were in Bukavu, south of Goma, with 550 Angolan commandos in Goma itself and others in the central city of Kisangani. It was impossible to verify the claims.

Further complicating matters were the nearly two dozen small militia groups operating in the DRC’s lawless east, which the government and UN peacekeepers have struggled to secure for years.

Fighting erupted on Tuesday between one of these, the pro-government Mai Mai, and the rebels north of Goma, UN spokesperson Sylvie van den Wildenberg said.

At the International Criminal Court in The Netherlands, meanwhile, prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said on Tuesday he was monitoring reports of war crimes in the DRC, including murders, rapes, attacks on civilians and looting. The perpetrators ”will not go unpunished,” he said.

Ross Mountain, the UN humanitarian envoy to DRC, said he UN mission has pulled peacekeepers out of other trouble spots and has concentrated 92% of its 17 000-strong force in the east.

But at only one peacekeeper for every 10 000 civilians, the force was vastly unmanned, he said, noting that the Kosovo mission had 46 000 UN troops for an area 200 times smaller.

Neil Campbell of the Brussels-based independent think tank, International Crisis Group, said diplomatic efforts must be swift.

”The worst case scenario would be regional escalation with Rwanda getting heavily involved,” Campbell said. ”And that’s something that we
want to avoid at all costs.”

In Kiwanja on Tuesday, Associated Press reporters watched hundreds trudging home from refugee camps they said they were forced to leave by Nkunda’s rebels.

UN spokesperson Michele Montas said Nkunda’s rebels blocked at least 100 refugee families attempting to return to Tongo, a village on the edge of the Virunga National Park that shelters endangered mountain guerrillas. – Sapa-AP

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Todd Pitman
Todd Pitman works from [email protected] Regional Public Information Officer, UN Human Rights (OHCHR), based in Bangkok. Ex-AP foreign correspondent in Africa and Asia-Pacific. Todd Pitman has over 2342 followers on Twitter.

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