Soldier pay threatens to undo Congo's progress against rebels
Many soldiers haven't seen wages for months. Meanwhile, a Hutu militia is increasing attacks on civilians in response to the military offensive.
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"The FDLR have a very ugly past, but we haven't seen this level of violence in years," adds Ms. Van Woudenberg. "They are deliberately targeting civilians [as]reprisals for the military operations."Skip to next paragraph
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In Luofo, a village about 80 miles north of Goma, five children were burned alive when 255 homes were torched on April 17.
One grieving father, his one remaining son at his side, says he lost his three other children as the militia stopped him from entering his house to rescue them. But his anger is not just directed at the militia. "We need peace in this area, but this is also a problem of our government, which does not care for the population," he says.
Luofo is not the only village to have been torched.
"People are telling us that thousands of homes have been burned," says Marcel Stoessel, country director of British aid agency Oxfam.
The increased violence is leading some to ask whether the Congolese government and the UN will be forced to scale down the military offensive in order not to provoke the FDLR into killing more civilians for revenge.
"Protection of civilians is our number one priority," claims the UN's Colonel Dietrich. "But we are also engaged in operations against the militia, supporting the Congolese Army. We are stretched to the maximum."
A new front opening?
Yet for now at least, such reservations haven't stopped the Congolese Army or the UN gearing up to open a new front.
The sphere of operations was restricted to North Kivu, one of two mineral-rich provinces where the FDLR has strongholds.
Now, the focus is shifting to neighboring South Kivu Province, where 10,000 Congolese government troops have been amassed. Ahead of this new campaign, the UN is attempting to ensure that wages make their way through to troops. "Before, salaries have gone to commanders to distribute," explains Dietrich. "But now, every soldier should get an identity card, so it's much easier to identify them and pay them directly."
But there are doubts as to whether Congo's government can carry on funding the Army.
Effect of the global economic crisis
"Congo's economy has been one of the worst affected in Africa by the global economic downturn," says Lisa Lewin, an economist for Business Monitor International, a London-based risk consultancy. "With commodity prices having plunged, we believe Congo will experience a recession this year."
Much of Congo's official revenue comes from copper, which, despite a recent bounce, is trading at only half the level it reached last July. This makes it even harder for the cash-strapped government to pay its soldiers.
And in a further cruel twist of economic fate, gold prices are buoyant, as global investors have been attracted by the metal's 'safe haven' status. And the FDLR is not only reclaiming gold-mining interests in North Kivu, but it also retains interests in the metal in South Kivu, where its networks remain intact, according to the Western official.
Meanwhile, the Tutsi-dominated government of Rwanda is sitting on the sidelines. Could it be tempted to intervene again if the offensive against its enemy, the FDLR, unravels? For now, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame is maintaining the spirit of good neighborliness and cooperation. He doesn't rule out sending troops back across the border, but says he will only help if the Congolese government asks him to.