The Rwandan army has killed 35 Hutu militiamen and former government soldiers who crossed into the country's northwest from neighboring Congo over the weekend, the commander in charge of the operation said Monday.
Brig. Gen. James Kabarere said a firefight erupted after civilians in the region alerted the army Sunday morning to the presence of about 70 Interahamwe militiamen and former soldiers. He said none of his men were injured.
"We were not surprised because we have mounted intensive operations in the Masisi region of eastern Congo to flush them out, and that pressure was making it difficult for them. So perhaps they thought they would find it easier where the population might cooperate with them," Kabarere said by telephone from the army's regional headquarters in Ruhengeri.
The former members of Rwanda's military and the Interahamwe militia fled into refugee camps in what was then eastern Zaire in 1994 to escape reprisals for their participation in the slaughter of more than 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus from April to July of that year.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up primarily of Rwandan Tutsi exiles from neighboring countries, ousted the government conducting the genocide and took power in July 1994.
Rwandan troops attacked the refugee camps in what is now Congo in November 1996 to dislodge the former soldiers and Interahamwe who were using them as bases from which to attack Rwanda. Nearly 1 million Rwandan Hutus returned home in less than a week, but tens of thousands of former soldiers and Interahamwe scattered into Congo.
During 1997 and part of 1998, they staged periodic raids on northwestern Rwanda, which is heavily populated by majority Hutus, killing scores of civilians.
"This time, the population was hostile to them. That's what made it easier for us," Kabarere said.
Rwandan troops entered Congo again in August 1998 in support of Congolese rebels attempting to oust then-President Laurent Kabila, who was arming the former Rwandan soldiers and militia. An agreement signed in July 1999 by all the parties engaged in the civil war in Congo calls for the disarming of the former soldiers and Interahamwe militia.
Hopes for peace in Congo have risen since Joseph Kabila took over from his slain father as president in January, but there are signs that some foreign rebel groups involved in the Congolese war may be returning home and reviving earlier conflicts.
Regional analysts say thousands of Burundian Hutu rebels who fought alongside the Congolese government army have left Congo this year and are attempting to reestablish bases in Burundi.