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Rwanda-Congo move isolates UN mission

Last week's deployment of Rwandan troops to fight rebels in Congo caught the 17,000-strong UN mission by surprise.

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"Nothing important will happen, no serious clash…. They will push against FDLR, who will go deeper in the bush," says the worker, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Goran. "And MONUC cannot do anything. It will show that MONUC is useless."

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Rwanda's impatience with the UN

Rwanda, which has held a grudge against the UN for its failure to prevent the 1994 genocide, has been impatient with what it considers the UN's slow progress. The FDLR has continued to recruit new combatants, averaging last summer 50 new fighters a month, according to MONUC.

"UN hasn't made any progress whatsoever" since the 2007 peace talks, says van de Geer. "Absolutely nothing has happened on the disarmament of the FDLR. Nothing."

In fact, Rwanda has long been a step ahead of the UN on this particular task, says regional analyst Jason Stearns. "They know these guys [the FDLR]; they know their families…. They have their phone numbers," says Mr. Stearns, who used to work for the UN disarmament unit. "They have infiltrated FDLR to a very high level. They have much better intelligence than the UN ever had."

Joe Felli, head of office for MONUC in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, says the development hasn't marginalized the UN in eastern Congo, where as many as 24 armed groups vie for control over vast and sometimes impenetrable territory. "This does not prevent us from taking action against any of the armed groups once they threaten our mandate, which is chiefly the protection of civilians. The Rwandans are definitely aware of that."

Some observers predict that the joint mission will devolve into a Rwandan civil war on Congolese soil. Rwandan and Congolese forces exchanged fire with the FDLR over the weekend, reportedly killing nine combatants. The fighting raises concerns about the protection of civilians. The FDLR are known to nestle into civilian areas, making it difficult to isolate combatants and avoid injuring civilians. Van de Geer says the UN is the only body capable of providing that protection.

"We feel that the UN should stay involved as much as possible precisely because they are charged with responsibility of protecting civilian population," he says. "That will require muscle, military muscle."

Felli says MONUC is not wavering on its mandate to protect civilians, a task about which he says MONUC "cannot remain neutral."

It's unclear, however, precisely how the UN can protect those who find themselves in the path of the Rwandan Army. Last week, the Rwandan and Congolese armies blocked the UN from delivering humanitarian supplies to the recently displaced.

The Congolese themselves are questioning how valuable the promise of UN protection is. In October, Congolese civilians turned on the UN, hurling heavy slabs of lava rock at MONUC headquarters in the regional capital of Goma and stoning a peacekeeping vehicle.