Congo, Rwanda Call Joint Offensive a Success

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 28, 2009

NAIROBI, Feb. 27 -- Rwandan troops began their promised withdrawal from eastern Congo this week following an operation with the Congolese army targeting Rwandan Hutu rebels who streamed across the border after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Rwandan authorities said the month-long joint operation -- widely praised by the United Nations and many countries, including the United States -- was aimed at dismantling the rebels, who have preyed on Congolese villagers for more than a decade and fueled one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II. By some estimates, the fighting and related turmoil have left at least 5 million people dead over the past decade.

Rwandan and Congolese officials cast the offensive as an unqualified success, as the first group of the estimated 5,000 Rwandan soldiers in Congo withdrew Wednesday.

But many observers said Rwanda's military foray -- while a welcome show of cooperation with Congo, its longtime nemesis -- only marginally improved a still precarious situation.

The operation has merely scattered the 6,000 or so Hutu rebels belonging to the FDLR farther west. Only one rebel leader -- a spokesman -- has been captured, while two dozen others, including some wanted for participating in the genocide, remain in the bush or are in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa or Europe. The task of disarming the rebels is now up to the infamously inept Congolese army, which once collaborated with the Hutu rebels, and an overstretched U.N. peacekeeping force.

Human rights groups warn that the FDLR could regroup within weeks and launch reprisal attacks against villagers as it seeks to retake lost ground that includes the lucrative mineral mines it has controlled for years.

"The operation was a manifestation of cooperation between Congo and Rwanda, so that's positive. . . . The problem now is the follow-up," said Fran├žois Grignon, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, a foreign policy research group. "Okay, they've disorganized [the rebels] temporarily. But the risk of retaliation is still there."

Although the 17,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force was largely left out of the operation, it is now rushing to secure strategic areas that the Rwandan troops cleared of rebels before they return. The peacekeepers are also supposed to assist the Congolese army as it continues to hunt down rebels -- many of whom are now in small pockets of 20 and 30 -- across the dense forests of eastern Congo.

"The idea is not to leave a vacuum," said Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, the U.N. mission's military spokesman. "But we have to see how we can do that because we are stretched. We will have to fix some priorities on which places we can deploy. There will also be a question of time -- if we have enough time."

Observers say the joint operation was never about disarming the FDLR. Rwandan authorities have repeatedly said the rebels no longer pose the immediate military threat they had in the years just after the genocide, when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists.

In a broader sense, the conflict in eastern Congo has increasingly become a political problem for both Congo and Rwanda.

Although the Congolese government had promised Rwanda over the years that it would disarm the rebels, it was often criticized for collaborating with them. Congo, meanwhile, accused Rwanda of backing a Tutsi-dominated rebel group led by renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, who claimed he was protecting Congo's Tutsi minority from the Hutu rebel group.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company