Rwandan army presence poses political risks for Kabila

Rwandan troops crossed into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Tuesday in a joint military operation by the Great Lakes neighbours to disarm Rwandan Hutu rebels seen as a root cause of more than a decade of conflict.

While both countries presented the operation as part of internationally-backed efforts to end conflict in DRC, analysts said allowing the Rwandan army in posed political risks for Congolese President Joseph Kabila.

The presence of the Rwandan Hutu rebel fighters, who finance themselves by exploiting illegal mines in the mineral-rich east, triggered two previous Rwandan invasions of DRC that led to a wider 1998-2003 conflict. It also helped cause a 2004 rebellion by Congo Tutsi rebels who went on the offensive late last year.

Diplomats and United Nations peacekeepers said that up to 2 000 Rwandan troops entered DRC’s eastern North Kivu province on Tuesday under a December joint accord to act against the mostly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The FDLR’s strength is estimated at about 6 000 fighters, spread across North and South Kivu.

“The operations are beginning. We have invited Rwandan officers with their security contingents for their safety.
They are observers ... The operations to disarm the FDLR are planned for a length of 10 to 15 days,” Lambert Mende, Congo’s Information Minister and government spokesperson, told Reuters.

But the size of the Rwandan deployment appeared to be more than a simple observation mission.

A Reuters reporter saw hundreds of Rwandan troops, wearing Rwandan flag patches on their uniforms and carrying mortars, rocket launchers and AK-47s, moving into DRC in the Kibati area north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.

Rwandan military spokesperson Major Jill Rutaremara told Reuters in Kigali the details of the operation were “secret”.

Rwanda’s Information Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said the Rwandan forces would operate under Congolese command.

“This is a result of recent intense and sincere efforts—diplomatic, military and other ... to bring peace and stability to the region.” he told Reuters by text message.

UN peacekeepers also confirmed the Rwandan deployment.

“This morning between 1 500 and 2 000 RDF [Rwanda Defence Forces] crossed the border in the Munigi-Kibati zone,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, military spokesperson for the UN peace force, Monuc, said.

Monuc said it had not been involved in planning the operation.

Congolese army forces were on the move with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and mobile rocket launchers, Dietrich said.

Fears of escalation
Analysts said the latest entry of Rwandan troops into DRC, at the same time as a Ugandan-led offensive against Ugandan LRA rebels further north in Orientale, were an acknowledgement by Kabila that he had failed to pacify his country. He had promised to do this after winning 2006 elections.

“Look where we are, two years after elections, the Rwandan army back in Congo and the Ugandans are back in Congo ... and the Congolese get screwed again,” one veteran foreign DRC analyst, who asked not be named, said.

The analyst recalled DRC’s 1998-2003 war, when Rwanda and Uganda backed rival rebel groups.

“It’s a confirmation of what everybody knows—the DRC army has no control over its own territory,” said a foreign diplomat.

The presence in eastern DRC of Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels, many of whom participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, has been at the heart of more than a decade of bloodshed.

The 1998-2003 war sucked in the armies of half a dozen nearby countries, and triggered a conflict-driven humanitarian catastrophe that killed about 5,4-million people.

Rwanda and Congo have agreed on several past occasions to cooperate to tackle the Hutu rebels, but have failed to carry this out amid accusations that ill-disciplined Congolese government forces have sided with the FDLR Hutu fighters.

Fighting flared again in North Kivu last October, when the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a Congolese Tutsi rebel group led by renegade General Laurent Nkunda, ended a ceasefire and launched an offensive against Goma.

The fighting, which killed hundreds and displaced about 250 000 people, prompted fears of a fresh regional war.

UN experts told the Security Council last month that the governments of both Rwanda and Congo had been backing rebel groups in the conflict, and recommended targeted sanctions such as travel bans and freezing of assets against some individuals.

Since then diplomatic efforts to achieve a peaceful solution have picked up pace with frequent high-level contacts between Kigali and Kinshasa, in the absence of formal diplomatic ties. - Reuters

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