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Will Rwandan troops help in Congo?

More than 2,000 Rwandan troops entered Congo Tuesday to help hunt down Hutu rebels who are blamed for the 1994 genocide of about 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 22, 2009

New rebel chief? Gen. Bosco Ntaganda spoke to reporters earlier this month in Kabati, Congo. He has declared himself the new leader of the Tutsi rebel group that is cooperating with Rwandan troops to hunt down Hutu rebels in eastern Congo.

Abdul Ndemere/Reuters

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Nairobi, Kenya

Just weeks after inviting Ugandan forces onto its soil to finish off the Ugandan rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army, the Democratic Republic of Congo has now invited Rwanda's army – its longtime rival – to come into Congo to hunt down Rwandan Hutu rebels blamed for the 1994 genocide.

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By Tuesday evening, more than 2,000 Rwandan troops had entered Congo's North Kivu Province for a joint operation against the Hutu-led FDLR rebel group.

Officially, Congolese authorities proclaimed that the operation would last for 10 to 15 days – and would rely heavily on a Congolese Tutsi militia to spearhead the attacks – but given the FDLR's habit of integrating with local communities in dense jungles, such an operation is likely to take much longer and create high numbers of civilian casualties.

"I think everyone agrees that the FDLR has to be dealt with, but the question is whether this kind of operation will do the job," says Anneke van Woudenberg, a Congo expert with Human Rights Watch, who has just finished a fact-finding mission in the DRC. "I don't think anyone believes the FDLR problem will be resolved in 10 to 15 days, but it will likely result in high civilian casualties."

The joint operation between Congo and Rwanda – a tiny but powerful country that has invaded Congo several times in the past 15 years and is much reviled by local Congolese – is likely to be unpopular, Ms. Van Woudenberg adds, noting that Congolese national assembly members protested on Tuesday that they were not informed in advance of the operation.

"This may be political suicide" for Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, says Van Woudenberg.

Concerns about civilian casualties

With Rwanda finally allowed to take care of the unfinished business of genocide, and Congo allowed to rid itself of a nuisance rebel force, the joint operation would appear at first glance to be a win-win situation.

But with hundreds of thousands of Congolese already displaced by conflict, and tens of thousands likely to be placed in harm's way, the joint Congo-Rwanda operation has the explosive potential of creating more harm than good.

"You know how quick the Rwandans were to enter, but the question is how soon they will get out," says Guillaume Lacaille, a Congo expert at the International Crisis Group, who has just returned to Kenya from North Kivu's capital city, Goma. "This reminds me very much of 1998, when Uganda had troops in [Congo's Ituri Province], and Rwanda had troops in [Congo's North and South Kivu provinces], and it led to a regional war."