Rwanda's Arrest of Congolese Rebel Leader Marks a Key Shift

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 24, 2009

KIGALI, Rwanda, Jan. 23 -- The arrest of renegade Congolese Gen. Laurent Nkunda by his former Rwandan allies portends a dramatic shift in a complex conflict that has raged and simmered across the region since 1994, when the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide spilled across the border into eastern Congo.

The Rwandan troops moved against Nkunda late Thursday during a joint military operation with Congolese forces whose main purpose is to dismantle the Rwandan Hutu militias that organized in Congo after the genocide and have remained.

The operation is part of a wider political and economic deal to smooth over the perennially caustic relationship between Congo and Rwanda, which has fueled a conflict estimated to have taken as many as 5 million Congolese lives and displaced more than a million people over the past decade.

Nkunda, a brash leader fond of sharp suits and gold-tipped canes, began his rebel career by declaring that he was protecting Congo's minority Tutsis from the militias, known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. He was supported by Rwanda, who shared his complaint that the Congolese army had failed to disarm the militias.

But in recent months, Nkunda began to speak of "liberating" all of Congo, and after striking a deal with the Congolese on a variety of issues, his Rwandan backers finally turned on him.

"He was becoming a liability for the Rwandan government," said Fran├žois Grignon, Africa director for the International Crisis Group, a research organization.

Rwanda has a history of brutal military interventions in eastern Congo, and the joint operation poses serious political problems for Congolese President Joseph Kabila. But diplomats and other observers nonetheless cast the move against Nkunda and the FDLR as a potentially positive step toward repairing a relationship that is key to stability in the region.

"It's hugely significant," said Alan Doss, the United Nations envoy to the region. "I hope it will result in now putting to an end this chapter -- dealing with the FDLR problem and ending a rebellion and putting the country back on the road to peace."

In New York, U.N. officials said the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Congo had been caught off guard by the joint offensive and expressed concern for civilians who might get caught up in a potentially messy operation.

"We fear that any additional conflict now is going to drive even more people from their homes," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, noting that at least 250,000 people had fled recent months of fighting between the Congolese army and Nkunda's forces.

The presence of about 5,000 FDLR militiamen in eastern Congo has long been a source of tension between Rwanda and Congo, which has promised and failed many times over the years to disarm them. Though many rank-and-file FDLR fighters were barely teenagers when they fled into Congo, they remain under the command of leaders who allegedly participated in the Rwandan genocide, when Hutu extremists killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days of well-planned violence.

Those leaders have disavowed any former ambitions to invade Rwanda and are now entrenched in Congo's lucrative mining business. They have set up what amounts to a parallel government across areas of eastern Congo, where their hardened militiamen have made a way of life out of preying on villagers.

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