Despite pledges of restraint to prevent the unraveling of their alliance, Uganda and Rwanda seem to be moving toward a second armed confrontation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Both sides deployed two battalions, roughly 1,500 men each, near Rutshuru in the far east of Congo last week. Experts say the move may lead to the opening of a third front in the vast central African country between the Ugandan People's Defense Forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Army.
Both Rwanda and Uganda signed a peace agreement to end the conflict in the Congo, along with four other countries and three rebel groups. But over the past two months, there have been reports of repeated violations of the truce by all parties involved. Hopes that the deal might hold were further dampened by Zimbabwe's announcement, last week, that its army backing of Congolese President Laurent Kabila, would set up a mining business in partnership with the Congolese government to fund the war.
The deployment of additional troops in the Rwandan- and Ugandan-controlled sectors in Eastern Congo came after Congolese rebels sponsored by Uganda insisted on appointing their own governor in the province of North Kivu. The present governor, Leonard Kanyamuhaga Gafundi, was installed earlier on by the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RDC), a Rwandan rebel movement.
The appointment of a rival authority catering to Ugandan interests in North Kivu increased tensions between Rwanda and Uganda. The two nations, then allies, invaded Congo 13 months ago to topple Mr. Kabila, whom they saw as a threat to their countries' security. But simmering disagreements over the conduct of their campaigns have erupted into open animosity.
War between two of Africa's closest allies hasn't broken out yet. But analysts say that the brutality of Rwanda's and Uganda's first armed confrontation in August, as well as the recent troop deployments in North Kivu, does not bode well for the agreement.
For weeks now, the question has been to what degree Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was involved in the decision to attack Rwandan positions in Kisangani. Brig. Gen. James Kazini, in charge of Uganda's campaign, has since been removed from Kisangani. But he continues to run military operations from the northern Congolese town of Gbagdolite.
Tensions between the two armies built over Uganda's determination to play a leading role in a war that "none of its officers were actually ready or willing to fight," says an aid worker stationed in Kisangani.
The UPDF has come under severe criticism both at home and abroad for failing to check the greed of some of its top officers, who have been accused of plundering Congolese riches rather than fighting the war. Kazini and Museveni's only brother, Salim Saleh, a general in the UPDF, have been singled out in press reports for the scale of their widespread looting.
If the second clash, which is likely to take place in North Kivu, proves to be a more-balanced one - without a clear winner or loser - "it might create some kind of deterrence," says Fabienne Hara of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
But should this logic of deterrence fail to take hold in Congo, analysts say the chances of an open war between the two are high. The diversion of Ugandan and Rwandan forces from the main front will give President Kabila, who is currently fighting a defensive war for the half of Congo he still controls, a welcome boost.
Depending on the level of hostility generated by the fighting, Uganda may be tempted to recruit Kabila's allies, on the premise, often adopted in African warfare, that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." That would leave Rwanda entirely isolated.
By far the worst case scenario, which Rwandan officials are prone to dismiss at this stage, would have Uganda opening up the border it shares with Rwanda to the Interahamwe - rebels from Rwanda's Hutu ethnic majority, who in 1994 attempted to exterminate that country's Tutsi minority, playing a leading role in the genocide of an estimated 800,000 people.
Observers say that a massive infiltration by the Interahamwe into Rwandan territory would set the stage for ethnic violence of unimaginable proportions.
"I don't believe Museveni would open his border to the Interahamwe. I don't think he would go that far," says one Western analyst.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society