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Congo rebellion inflaming regional tensions


The conflict has sparked a diplomatic crisis between the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the rebels, including by sending its own troops into eastern Congo.

The fighting has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in a region. Picture: James Akena/Reuters

By Aaron Ross

THE DEMOCRATIC Republic of Congo’s army has been locked in heavy fighting since late May with the M23 rebel group, which is waging its most sustained offensive since a 2012/13 insurrection that seized vast swathes of territory.

The conflict has sparked a diplomatic crisis between Congo and neighbouring Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the rebels, including by sending its own troops into eastern Congo. Rwanda denies any involvement.

The fighting has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in a region that has had little respite from conflict ever since neighbours Rwanda and Uganda invaded in 1996, citing threats from local militia groups.

A soldier stands guard at an M23 rebel training camp in Rumangabo, eastern Congo. File picture: Stephen Wandera/AP

Last week, the M23 captured the strategic town of Bunagana on the border with Uganda, and shot down a Congolese army helicopter.

The heads of state from the seven members of the East African Community (EAC), including Congo and Rwanda, met in Nairobi on Monday to discuss the potential deployment of a regional military force to eastern Congo to provide security.

Who are the M23?

When it formed in 2012, M23 was the newest in a series of ethnic Tutsi-led insurgencies to rise up against Congolese forces.

M23’s name refers to the March 23 date of a 2009 accord that ended a previous Tutsi-led revolt in eastern Congo. The M23 accused the authorities of not living up to promises to fully integrate Congolese Tutsis into the army and government.

The M23 and its predecessor groups have claimed to be defending Tutsi interests against ethnic Hutu militias whose leaders participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

M23 fighters seized vast swathes of the eastern Congo countryside in 2012, and briefly captured Goma, a city of one million people, before being driven the following year into Rwanda and Uganda by Congo’s army and UN peacekeepers.

What is the connection to Rwanda?

Congo’s eastern neighbours, particularly Rwanda and Uganda, have a long history of military intervention inside Congo. The two countries invaded in 1996, and again in 1998, claiming they were defending themselves against local militia groups.

The latter of those wars ended with a peace treaty in 2003. But in the years since, Congo’s government, UN investigators and independent experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda of supporting militias inside Congo, including the M23.

They say the support has been aimed at maintaining geopolitical influence and profiting from extraction of the area’s mineral riches. Both countries have repeatedly denied those charges.

Congo’s latest accusations have led to angry denials by Kigali. Rwanda has, in turn, accused Congo of firing rockets into its territory and fighting alongside the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an ethnic Hutu militia.

Congo denies this

The latest flashpoint was on Friday, when a Congolese soldier crossed into Rwanda from Goma and opened fire, injuring two Rwandan police officers, before being killed, according to Rwanda’s military.

What evidence has Congo provided of Rwandan involvement?

Congo captured two Rwandan soldiers it said were found on Congolese soil. Rwanda said they were kidnapped inside Rwanda. They have since been released back to Rwanda.

Congo has also presented videos and photos that it says show Rwandan soldiers and weaponry inside Congo. Reuters has not been able to independently confirm their authenticity.

The United Nations and regional bodies have not yet weighed in on Congo’s claims. The US embassy in Congo tweeted last week that it was concerned “about the signalled presence of Rwandan forces on Congolese territory”.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame suggested in February that Rwandan forces might need to intervene in eastern Congo because of the threat from Hutu militiamen.


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