CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Tensions between the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Rwanda, and the sudden reemergence of a once-feared rebel group in eastern Congo, have raised fears of another wide-reaching conflict in the volatile Great Lakes region.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said Friday that more than 72,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in North Kivu province.
Congo’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, summoned Rwanda’s ambassador on Friday, suspended RwandAir flights and barred overflights by the government-owned carrier, accusing Kigali of backing M23. Rwanda has denied supporting the ethnic Tutsi militia, which was accused by the United Nations of summary executions, rape and the use of child soldiers during a brutal insurgency a decade ago. But the group has been mostly quiet since laying down its arms in 2013.
“We are possibly seeing a stumbling into a conflict that was not intended to be a conflict,” said a former U.S. government official focused on Africa who has direct knowledge of regional talks. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations. “It appears that Rwanda has stirred up the M23, not so much to start a war, but to get attention,” he said.
The attacks by M23 came after Rwanda announced that two of its soldiers were being held in eastern Congo by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rival militia founded by Rwandan Hutus who were involved in human rights atrocities against the Tutsis.
“We call upon authorities of the Democratic Republic of Congo that work closely with these genocidal armed groups to secure the release of the [Rwanda Defense Force] soldiers,” said a Saturday statement from the Rwandan government.
“The Rwandans claim they were captured from a border post in Rwanda, while the Congolese, after not saying anything for several days, now claim they were arrested while inside Congo,” the former U.S. official said. “There is very little trust and everything has been interpreted in the worst possible light, and this is where one miscalculation leads to other miscalculations.”
Rwanda’s foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, told reporters Tuesday that Kigali was interested in working with Congo to restore stability, but cautioned that it would use force if necessary.
“If attacks continue, we will not sit idly by,” Biruta said, according to the Reuters news agency. “Rwanda will have the right to respond to protect the security of the country, to protect the security of its citizens, and we have the means to do that.”
While U.N. investigators previously found that M23 was backed by Rwanda and Uganda when the group was most active in 2012, it is unclear to what extent that remains the case today.
Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, who chairs the African Union, expressed alarm about the escalating violence. “I call for calm and dialogue between the two countries, and for the peaceful resolution of the crisis with the support of regional mechanisms and the African Union,” he tweeted on Sunday.
Relations among the Great Lakes neighbors have improved in recent years. Kenya has proposed an East African intervention force to deal with militia activity, and Congo joined the East African Community trade bloc in March.
But the region’s fragile calm was tested late last year after Tshisekedi allowed Ugandan troops into eastern Congo to take on an Islamist rebel group blamed for a deadly bombing in Kampala.
The following month, Burundian soldiers crossed the border into eastern Congo to battle the RED-Tabara rebel group, which has used the area as a base to launch attacks inside Burundi. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has also warned he would dispatch soldiers into the area, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Nelleke van de Walle, ICG director for the Great Lakes region, said tensions between Congo and Rwanda flared again after it appeared that Kinshasa was moving closer to Uganda and Burundi, leaving Kigali feeling marginalized.
“Rwanda also has anti-Kigali rebel groups on Congolese soil, and Rwanda has mentioned in the past that it wants to fight those groups as well,” she said. “What could be challenging is if Rwanda becomes involved on the military front” in Congo’s east.
Rwanda and Uganda are interested not only in tackling militias in eastern Congo, said van de Walle, but also in tapping the area’s vast mineral wealth. “The fact that Tshisekedi allowed the Ugandans to come into the DRC to conduct military operations, but also to conduct road works to improve trade between eastern DRC and Uganda, also adds to the mix,” she said, using an abbreviation for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As larger powers have battled for control of eastern Congo over the decades, civilians have borne the heaviest cost, often fleeing to Rwanda and Uganda and confined to refugee camps for years on end.
Families had just started returning to their land before the latest fighting in North Kivu, UNHCR said. Now, they are again being forced to abandon their homes, shops and fields, which many depend on for food. “This cycle of violence and displacement has become a repeated source of despair and danger,” the agency said.
Joel Smith, a UNHCR spokesman who just returned from eastern Congo, warned that the humanitarian situation is dire.
“The large scale of the displacement is leading to many families sheltering in schools and churches that are already overcrowded; some are even sleeping outside,” he said. “Major needs include shelter and access to clean drinking water and food, for which additional funding is urgently required.”
The U.N. special envoy to the Great Lakes, Huang Xia, briefed the Security Council late Tuesday on the situation in eastern Congo and is expected in Rwanda later this week.
What Rwanda does next, said van de Walle, will be critical. The government in Kigali has recently started connecting the Congolese military with the FDLR militia, which she said could be used as a pretext to cross into eastern Congo.
“That would be a dangerous development,” she added.