Rwandan Troops Enter Congo to Find Hutu Militia Leaders
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
NAIROBI, Jan. 20 -- More than 1,500 Rwandan troops crossed 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 Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, has been a catalyst for more than a decade of conflict in eastern Congo, spawning an array of other militias that have made a way of life out of preying on villagers.
By some estimates, more than 5 million Congolese have died in years of war and low-level conflict related to the unresolved aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, when Hutu militia members and soldiers killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days of well-planned violence.
On Tuesday, a Rwandan envoy, 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 says he is protecting Congolese Tutsis from the FDLR. Nkunda's advance across a swath of eastern Congo 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 U.N. report in December found evidence to support both claims. According to a U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of 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, 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.