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.

Abdul Ndemere/Reuters
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.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

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.

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."

The mineral wealth of North and South Kivu, where small artisanal mines have provided enormous wealth for local warlords, including the FDLR, also gives the Rwandans an incentive to extend their stay in Congo, no matter their promises of a 15-day operation.

"When you consider the natural resources in this territory," says Mr. Lacaille, "it is difficult to withdraw without guarantees that one will continue to benefit from those resources."

In Congo's capital, Kinshasa, Communications Minister Laurent Mende announced the joint operation between Rwanda and Congo on Tuesday, saying, "We have extended an invitation to the Rwandan Army," which has a "mandate" to hunt the FDLR.

Left out of decisionmaking on this joint operation is the 17,000-man United Nations peacekeeping force called MONUC.

With some 6,000 troops in the Kivu provinces and a recently strengthened mandate from the UN Security Council to protect civilian populations, even against actions by the Congolese Army, MONUC has been put into a difficult position.

Should it intervene to halt military operations by the host government?

Or should it cooperate with the operation, even if it means working hand inhand with a top commander of the local Congolese Tutsi CNDP militia, Bosco Ntaganda, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

General Ntaganda has apparently recently ousted Gen. Laurent Nkunda as leader of the CNDP, after a falling out over Ntaganda's massacre of civilians in December in the Congolese village of Kiwanja.

"This man is wanted by the ICC," says Van Woudenberg. "Congo is under obligation to arrest Ntaganda, not cooperate with him."

A complex situation

But UN humanitarian officers say that the situation in the Kivus is much more complex than that.

Atrocities have been committed even by members of the Congolese Army, including looting and raping of civilians by Congolese soldiers during their disorganized retreat last November, ahead of a massive assault on Goma by General Nkunda's forces.

Talks in Nairobi between Nkunda's CNDP and the Congolese government were thought to be the one chance to resolve these disputes peacefully, without further casualties, but those have now been cast into deep question.

Sponsored by a group of nations from Africa's Great Lakes region, and led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the talks are due to reconvene on Jan. 25. But will the CNDP team represent Nkunda, or will they be speaking for the self-proclaimed new CNDP leader, and accused war criminal, Gen. Ntaganda?

Referring to Ntaganda, a UN official in Nairobi admits, "This man is a murderer," but adds, "We humanitarians will talk with anyone, and whatever we can do to alleviate the suffering of people, we will do it."

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