CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- After two years of fragile peace, one of Africa's most volatile regions -- the border area of Rwanda and Congo -- has been pushed back to the brink of war with Rwandan soldiers reportedly staging raids in eastern Congo and Congolese militias clashing separately with each other.
Fighting broke out Wednesday for the fourth successive day between Rwandan-backed rebels and Congolese government troops, the Reuters news agency reported. The fighting, near the Rwanda border, came as a spokesman for President Joseph Kabila of Congo declared his country "at war" with Rwanda.
A few dozen civilians remained in one village in eastern Congo, but most have fled the border areas since tensions between Rwandan-backed rebels and Congolese government troops broke out this week after a two-year lull.
(Riccardo Gangale -- AP)
There have been no reports of significant casualties, but in recent weeks thousands of civilians in the border area have fled their homes as tensions and the number of armed men in the area have increased, human rights groups and U.N. officials reported.
Both governments have accused each other of provoking the renewed violence. Kabila has sent 10,000 troops to the border region, while the Rwandan government, although denying persistent reports of cross-border raids, has threatened to send troops into Congo in pursuit of thousands of armed militiamen from the ethnic Hutu group.
The tense situation contains many elements of the horrific war that erupted in the same corner of Africa in the late 1990s, ultimately drawing in six countries and causing millions of deaths with the region still reeling from ethnic slaughter in Rwanda.
The Congolese civil war officially ended last year, but the renewed conflict has alarmed countries and aid agencies around the world. Foreign leaders are calling for a new commitment to peace in the region, and international aid groups are preparing for the worst.
"I would say there's a new war brewing up there," said Felix Bamezon, the top official for the U.N. World Food Program in Congo. "People are really gearing up for a major confrontation."
Problems in the region date to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which an estimated 800,000 people -- mostly from the minority Tutsi ethnic group -- were bludgeoned, hacked and shot to death by members of the majority Hutu ethnic group, which controlled the government.
Tutsi rebels stopped the attacks by taking control of the national government, and they eventually pursued Hutu militias across the border into Congo, Rwanda's much larger but historically weak neighbor.
The resulting war drew in most of Congo's neighbors and began a scramble for the nation's rich natural resources. Several peace deals slowed the conflict, but Rwandan troops remained in Congo until late 2002 and militias stayed behind after the troops withdrew.
The Rwandan government, still controlled by Tutsis, charges that Hutu militias based in Congo continue to threaten Tutsis in Rwanda.
The Rwandan president, Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, has repeatedly expressed frustration that neither Congo's government nor international peacekeeping forces are disarming Hutu militias -- or bringing to justice those among them who were involved in the genocide.
"Anytime the United Nations ignores or fails to deal with the problem of [the rebels], we shall do it ourselves, and this will not take long, or, we might even be doing it now," Kagame said on Nov. 30, according to news reports.
His government later asserted it had no troops in Congo, but the Congolese government insisted that the Rwandan military had crossed the border. As recently as Tuesday, Congo officials said their troops had been involved in violent skirmishes with Rwandan soldiers.