Hunt Begins in Congo for Rwandan Militia Leaders
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; 8:08 AM
NAIROBI, Jan. 20 -- At least 1,500 Rwandan troops crossed the hilly border into eastern Congo on Tuesday morning, launching a major operation with the Congolese army to hunt down Rwandan Hutu militia leaders who fled into the region after participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, according to U.N. and Rwandan officials.
"We estimate that 1,500 to 2,000 troops crossed the border," said Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo. "After all the tensions between the two countries, this is very significant."
The continued presence of the Hutu militia known as the FDLR has been a catalyst for more than a decade of conflict in eastern Congo, spawning an array of other militia groups that have made a way of life out of preying upon local villagers.
By some estimates, more than 5 million Congolese have died in years of war and low-level conflict related to the messy, unresolved aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutu militia members and soldiers killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days of well-planned violence.
On Tuesday, the Rwandan envoy to the Great Lakes region, Joseph Mutaboba, described the operation as part of a December agreement between Congo and Rwanda to finally deal with the FDLR.
"The FDLR have to be disarmed -- they are a threat to Rwanda and also to the region," said Mutaboba, who declined to comment on the military operation itself. "Once we have done that, we look forward to peace."
For years, the Congolese government has accused Rwanda of backing the Congolese rebel group led by renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, who has claimed to be protecting ethnic Congolese Tutsis from the genocidal menace of the FDLR. Nkunda's advance across a swath of eastern Congo late last year displaced more than 250,000 people who are now living in squalid camps across the region.
Rwanda, meanwhile, has persistently accused the Congolese government of relying on the FDLR as a proxy fighting force and a bulwark against Nkunda, instead of honoring promises to disarm the militias.
A December U.N. report found evidence to support both claims. According to one U.N. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, the report helped push through an agreement in which Rwanda would cut off support to Nkunda, while Congo would allow a military operation to hunt down FDLR leaders and forcefully disarm resistant militiamen.
Recent reports of divisions within Nkunda's rebel group are a direct result of Rwanda's intervention, the U.N. official said. Rwandan President Paul Kagame "was really embarrassed after the report, and he just let Nkunda fall like a hot potato," the U.N. official said. Mutaboba denied any Rwandan involvement with Nkunda's group.
On Tuesday morning, U.N. soldiers reported that 1,500 to 2,000 Rwandan troops entered eastern Congo around the village of Kibati, which is just north of the main eastern city of Goma, Dietrich said. They were headed north toward the town of Rutshuru, which has been a stronghold of Nkunda's rebels.
"Why they're moving toward Rutshuru and what's their aim there, we don't know," Dietrich said, adding that it was unclear what role U.N. peacekeepers would play in the operation.
An estimated 6,000 battle-hardened Rwandan Hutu militiamen remain heavily armed in camps deep inside the forests of eastern Congo, and analysts have always said that disarming them will be exceedingly difficult work for any military, much less the famously incompetent Congolese army.
Although many rank-and-file FDLR militiamen were barely teenagers when they fled into the region, they remain under the command of about two dozen leaders who Rwandan officials say helped carry out the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Those leaders are alleged to be deeply entrenched in eastern Congo's mining business and might also receive support from former FDLR members living abroad.
According to an FDLR spokesman interviewed in November, the group no longer harbors any plans to topple the Tutsi-led Rwandan government, but only wants the "safe and dignified" return of Hutu refugees, including its militiamen, to Rwanda. Some experts contend that the leaders just want to continue to get rich off the mining business and secure their safe passage from the bush to Europe.
A large percentage of the rank-and-file Hutu militiamen, meanwhile, would qualify for amnesty under Rwandan law because they were younger than 16 at the time of the genocide.
Officially, the Rwandan government has welcomed those combatants home as an attempt to undermine the FDLR, although many of the militiamen fear prosecution if they go back. Some experts say that the Rwandan government has unofficially encouraged this fear, and would prefer to crush the FDLR leadership and scatter the remaining fighters deeper inside of Congo.
At least 1,500 Rwandan troops enter eastern Congo
By EDDY ISANGO – 6 hours ago
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — More than 1,500 Rwandan troops crossed the border into eastern Congo on Tuesday to join Congolese forces in an effort to oust Hutu rebels who participated in Rwanda's genocide and have long been at the heart of the region's conflict, officials said.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said the Rwandan forces arrived Tuesday morning and that the joint military operations would last 10 to 15 days.
"We have officially asked the Rwandan army to participate in the disarmament operations of the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) which have begun," Mende said.
A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said there was concern that Hutu militiamen might retaliate against civilians.
In a rare move, Congo and Rwanda have agreed to step up efforts against the Rwandan Hutu militants who have long destabilized the region. Still, neither country has been able to eradicate the Hutu rebels since they fled to Congo in 1994.
The Hutu fighters, who helped carry out the genocide in which more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, have remained in Congo untouched, heavily armed, and in control of lucrative mines in remote hills and forests.
The militia has terrorized civilians, given Tutsi rebels a reason to fight and also are the reason why Rwanda invaded Congo previously in 1996 and 1998.
The U.N. mission in Congo said it was not associated with the operations but confirmed that the Rwandan forces had entered Congolese territory. U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said between 1,500 and 2,000 Rwandan soldiers had crossed the border.
Louise Mushikiwabo, the Rwandan minister of information, said all forces were under the command of the Congolese national army.
"There is new momentum and the government of Rwanda is pleased the fundamental obstacle to stability for the last 15 years ... is finally being tackled," Mushikiwabo said.
The Rwandan Hutus fled to Congo in 1994 and some lived in overflowing refugee camps there. By 1996, their leaders launched an insurgency and began carrying out cross-border attacks into Rwanda, killing more Tutsis.
Fed up, Rwanda attacked the camps and drove on to Congo's capital, Kinshasa, installing late Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila as president in 1997.
Eager to prove his independence, Kabila in 1998 expelled the Rwandan Tutsis who brought him to power. Three days later, Rwanda organized another Congolese rebellion, and along with Uganda, seized eastern Congo in a war that drew in half a dozen African nations and lasted until 2002.
Since then, Congo has formed a unity government that gave top posts to rebels. Kabila's son Joseph won historic elections in 2006.
Former Rwandan-allied Tutsi rebels such as Laurent Nkunda were integrated into the army, but expressed frustration over the government's hesitancy to go after the Hutu militias who had served as their de facto allies during the war. The former general quit the army in 2004 and launched a rebellion.
Nkunda has used the threat posed by the Hutu rebels to justify carving out his own fiefdom in the mineral-rich east. But his critics contend he is more interested in power and Congo's mineral wealth.
In the latest outbreak of violence, rebels led by Nkunda launched an offensive in late August, gaining control of a large swath of the North Kivu region and driving more than a quarter of a million people from their homes. Many Congolese soldiers fled the advancing rebels, and U.N. peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians from being killed or raped.
Associated Press writers T.J. Kirkpatrick in Goma, Congo, and Tom Rippe in Kigali, Rwanda, contributed to this report.
Rwandan troops hunt Hutu rebels in Congo
Tue Jan 20, 2009 2:13pm GMT
(Reuters) - Rwandan troops crossed into eastern Congo 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.
Following are comments from analysts, diplomats and officials:
JASON STEARNS, INDEPENDENT CONGO ANALYST
"This marks a major turning point in Kinshasa's attitude towards the conflict in the east. It appears (President Joseph) Kabila's government has decided to turn on what has been an ally, the FDLR."
"This marks a serious change in Rwanda's policy as well. For the first time since 2002, Rwandan troops are on Congolese soil."
"They will now be working together against the FDLR, while the CNDP (Tutsi rebel group), which in the past has received support from Rwanda, will now join ranks with the Congolese army.
"This strategy hinges on the success of the military operations against the FDLR. These kinds of counter-insurgency operations are very difficult and always carry with them the risk of serious harm to the civilian population."
"The other risk is that these operations could be protracted and Kinshasa has already gone out on a limb inviting back in what has been traditionally perceived as its biggest enemy."
"Certainly we weren't expecting them to ... walk across the border in broad daylight. I don't think anyone was expecting that."
"I can't see practically how it's going to work."
"Kabila now has the hardest sell of his presidency. How is he going to convince the people that it's okay to have Rwandan boots on Congolese soil? I think it's going to be very difficult."
LOUISE MUSHIKIWABO, RWANDA'S INFORMATION MINISTER
"All forces are under (Congolese army) command. This is a result of recent intense and sincere efforts -- diplomatic, military and other -- by various stakeholders, to bring peace and stability to the region."
"The government of Rwanda has played its part in a consistent and sincere manner. There is a new momentum and the government of Rwanda is pleased that the fundamental obstacle to stability for the last 15 years, i.e. the (Rwandan Hutu) FDLR (rebels), is finally being tackled."
"It's a DRC/Rwanda operation. They are carrying on, whether anyone likes it or not. They have done it without consulting anyone else. As far as I can tell, they are ignoring MONUC (the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo)."
"There does seem to have been a sea change (in relations between the two countries). Whether that is just on the surface or not is not clear. It seems to be the result of some quite lengthy negotiations over the last few months but at no point have they involved the international community."
It's only a confirmation of what everybody already knows -- that the DRC army has no control over its own territory."
"I've heard that the Rwandans have been coming in over the last couple of days. Two thousand (soldiers) are clearly not just observers.
"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."
"I know the Rwandans have been closely watching what the international community has been allowing (Ugandan President Yoweri) Museveni to do (against the LRA in northeastern Congo).
"Kabila is so weak at the moment. This could spell electoral disaster for him. Allowing the Rwandans back into the Kivus will not please anyone."
(Reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa, Hereward Holland in Kigali and David Lewis in Dakar; Editing by David Lewis)
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ )
January 20th, 2009
Posted by: David Lewis
Rwanda sent hundreds of its soldiers into eastern Congo on Tuesday in what the neighbours have described as a joint operation against Hutu rebels who have been at the heart of 15 years of conflict. Details are still somewhat sketchy, with Rwanda saying its soldiers are under Congolese command but Kinshasa saying Kigali's men have come as observers.
Evidence on the ground suggests something more serious. United Nations peacekeepers and diplomats have said up to 2,000 Rwandan soldiers crossed into Congo. A Reuters reporter saw hundreds of heavily armed troops wearing Rwandan flag patches moving into Congo north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. The world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission is, for now, being kept out of the loop.
Foreign soldiers in Congo are nothing new. Rwanda first invaded in 1996. A 1998-2003 war in Congo sucked in six neighbouring armies. But after years of diplomacy and billions of dollars spent on peacekeeping and Congo's 2006 elections, analysts are frantically trying to work out what is going on.
The current joint operation stems from an agreement signed in December between Rwanda and Congo to cooperate more closely after weeks of heavy fighting in North Kivu province. Although the fighting was officially between Congolese government forces and Tutsi rebels, most analysts saw it as an escalation of a proxy war between Rwanda and Congo that has continued despite 2003 peace deals.
U.N. experts have accused Rwanda of supporting the Tutsi CNDP rebels, formed in 2004 out of previous Rwandan-backed movements that fought against the government in Kinshasa. As on many occasions in the past, Congo was, in turn, accused of arming and using Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels to boost the effectiveness of its fragile and chaotic army.
The fighting underlined the weakness of President Joseph Kabila's army, which looted and raped civilians as they fled the CNDP. But it also refocused attention on the Hutu rebels, many of whom crossed into Congo when they were routed after taking part in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and have long since been used by both Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi forces as justification for military operations in the mineral-rich east.
Rwanda and Congo have frequently agreed to resolve the FDLR problem. With talk of normalising relations, does Tuesday's intervention by the Rwandan army mark the first concrete step in new a new relationship between the two countries?
How will Kabila sell a Rwandan military intervention in Congo that is likely to be unpopular amongst many ordinary Congolese, who have long-accused Rwanda of entering their country to loot resources rather than remove rebel threats? How will a handful of Rwandans help Congo's notoriously weak forces disarm the FDLR in 10-15 days after Kigali's army failed to do the job during several years of occupation?
What is the international community's role in all this? The U.N. has some 17,000 peacekeepers on the ground but they have largely been kept at a distance. What about the threat of reprisals on civilians? Over 600 people have been killed in recent weeks after another of Congo's neighbours, Uganda, led an assault on its rebels in a another remote corner of the country.
Previous foreign occupations of Congo's mineral-rich east have been justified by hunts for rebels. Is there a danger of history repeating itself?
Rwandan troops enter Congo to hunt Hutu rebels
Tue Jan 20, 2009 3:43pm GMT
By John Kanyunyu
KIBATI, Congo (Reuters) - Rwandan troops crossed into eastern Congo 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.
Both governments presented the operation as a move to finally pacify the east of Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting flared again late last year during an advance by Tutsi insurgents who are sworn enemies of the Rwandan Hutu rebels.
Analysts said allowing the Rwandan forces in was a risky strategy for Congolese President Joseph Kabila, whose government army has been been often accused by critics of using the FDLR to fight armed opponents and keep Tutsi-led Rwanda at bay.
The presence of the Rwandan Hutu FDLR fighters, who finance themselves by exploiting illegal mines in the mineral-rich east, triggered two previous Rwandan invasions of Congo that led to a wider 1998-2003 conflict. It also helped cause a 2004 rebellion by the Congo Tutsi rebels who went on the offensive in October.
Diplomats and U.N. peacekeepers said that up to 2,000 Rwandan troops crossed the border into eastern Congo 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 around 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," Congo's information minister Lambert Mende said.
He added the operations to disarm FDLR fighters were planned to last 10 to 15 days and be restricted to North and South Kivu.
The size of the Rwandan deployment appeared to be more than a simple mission by "observers".
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 Congo in the Kibati area north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
Rwandan military spokesman Major Jill Rutaremara told Reuters in Kigali the details of the operation were "secret".
Independent Congo analyst Jason Stearns said the joint operation marked a turning point in Kinshasa's attitude towards the conflict in the east. "It appears Kabila's government has decided to turn on what has been an ally, the FDLR," he said.
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.
U.N. 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 spokesman for the U.N. force, MONUC, said. MONUC, the biggest U.N. peace force, 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.
Experts said the FDLR guerrillas ensconced in the hills and forests of the Kivus could be a tough nut to crack militarily.
"These kinds of counter-insurgency operations are very difficult and always carry with them the risk of serious harm to the civilian population," Stearns said.
The latest entry of Rwandan troops into Congo, at the same time as a Ugandan-led offensive against Ugandan LRA rebels further north in Orientale, appeared to be an acknowledgement by Kabila that he had failed to pacify the volatile east. 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 Congo analyst, who asked not be named, said.
The analyst recalled Congo's 1998-2003 war, when Rwanda and Uganda backed rival rebel groups.
The presence in eastern Congo 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 an estimated 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.