Rwanda troops enter Congo to help fight rebel militias
Hundreds of Rwandan troops crossed into Congo early Tuesday as part of a joint military operation to crack down on rebel militias that have been destabilizing the Central African giant for more than a decade.
It is the second time in a month that Congolese President Joseph Kabila has made a controversial decision to invite foreign troops onto his nation’s soil to help restore security in eastern Congo. Last month, Ugandan and southern Sudanese troops entered the Democratic Republic of Congo to attack hide-outs of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel movement.
The latest campaign appears to be targeting a Rwandan rebel army that also had sought refuge in Congo’s dense jungles. The Hutu militia, known as Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, is accused of seeking to overthrow Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government.
The FDLR, which finances itself by illegally exploiting Congo’s mineral riches, was founded by Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda after orchestrating the 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people died.
Early Tuesday, 1,500 to 2,000 Rwandan troops crossed the border and began making their way toward the town of Rutshuru, north of the regional capital of Goma, where they were expected to join Congolese troops with tanks and other heavy equipment, United Nations officials said.
Details of the impending operation were unclear, but a Congolese government spokesman told Reuters news agency that the campaign should last 10 to 15 days.
U.N. officials, who in Congo oversee the world’s largest peacekeeping force, complained that they received only a vague notice Monday night about the planned operation, even though their mandate is to provide security.
“We don’t know what the exact aim is,” said Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, a U.N. military spokesman. “Quite surprisingly, we were a little bit sidelined.”
He called upon both governments to ensure that any military crackdown complies with international law and provides adequate security for civilians. As a precaution, he said, U.N. troops deployed Tuesday to some displacement camps in the region.
Aid groups and civilians criticized last month’s joint operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army as ill prepared. After being bombed by Ugandan helicopters, LRA rebels launched dozens of attacks against civilians, killing more than 500 people and displacing thousands in the last month.
The presence of more foreign troops in Congo is also stirring uncomfortable memories of the late 1990s, when soldiers from Uganda and Rwanda twice invaded to help overthrow Congolese regimes. Both countries claimed to be pursuing rebels and stabilizing their borders, but they also profited heavily from illegal mining.
One military official in Congo, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the joint Rwandan-Congolese force might also be used to reestablish the Congolese government’s authority over territories recently seized by another rebel group, the Tutsi-led National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, which seeks to overthrow Kabila.
The CNDP, which historically has received support from the Rwandan government, has been weakened recently by an internal power struggle.
The presence of rebel militias in eastern Congo has long been a sore spot between the governments of Rwanda and Congo. Rwandan officials accused the Congolese army of protecting and even joining forces with the FDLR guerrillas. The Congolese government, in return, accuses Rwanda of backing the CNDP. A recent U.N. investigation found evidence to support both claims.
Last month, the two governments reached an agreement to work together to disarm the FDLR, which is estimated to have 6,000 fighters.
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Militia adds to region’s troubles
Thousands of Hutu rebels with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, have brought instability and violence to eastern Congo for more than a decade.
The rebels fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo after ethnic Tutsis seized power in Rwanda in 1994, ending a genocide that Hutu soldiers and militia fighters had carried out against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
In eastern Congo, the rebels joined marauding armed groups fighting one another and terrorizing civilians.
In December, Congo and Rwanda agreed to a military plan to disarm the FDLR. Hundreds of Rwandan troops entered Congo early Tuesday to pursue the rebels.
The FDLR fighters are ensconced in the rugged terrain of North and South Kivu provinces, where they have been living off the land, subduing residents by force and financing themselves through illegal mining operations.