Some 4,000 miles away from the spiral of violence in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the simultaneous arrests of two key Rwandan Hutu rebel leaders in Germany could help bring the troubled region a step closer to peace.
The arrests are a major shift in German policy towards the Rwandan rebel group, represent an expansion of international war-crimes law, and put pressure on the US and France to arrest FDLR leaders residing there, say analysts.
Acting on an arrest warrant issued yesterday by German prosecutors, early Tuesday morning police in the sleepy southern German town of Karlsruhe arrested Ignace Murwanashyaka, president of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Eastern Congo, German prosecutors said in a statement. Mr. Murwanashyaka's deputy, Straton Musoni, was arrested simultaneously in the Stuttgart area on the same charges.
An economist in Germany
Originally from southern Rwanda, Murwanashyaka has been living in Germany since the late 1980s. After arriving on a study fellowship, he went on to gain a PhD in economics, marry a German woman, and successfully applied for political asylum in 2000.
In 2001, Murwanashyaka was elected head of the FLDR. Made up of a rump of hard-core genocidaires, who fled Rwanda for Eastern Congo in the wake of the 1994 genocide, the Hutu rebel group has been at the center of Congo's troubles for most of a decade.
Since the start of the year, the FDLR has faced a series of military onslaughts from Rwandan, Congolese, and UN forces in the region. But while the military operations have sparked widespread civilian suffering with only limited results, campaigners have been pushing for more pressure to be put on the FDLR leadership living abroad.
"This will certainly weaken the FDLR," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher on Democratic Republic of Congo for Human Rights Watch. "This will send quite a shock for Ignace Murwanashyaka to be arrested because the FDLR very much thought it could go about their business in Europe and the US with impunity."
A Hutu militia run from Germany
The arrests in Germany come just as a UN report – expected to link the FDLR leadership in Europe directly to atrocities committed in Congo – is set to be submitted to the UN Security Council. The report's findings come as no surprise to researchers in the region.
"[Former FDLR combatants] all say 'we do nothing without the OK of Ignace Murwanashyaka,' so taking him out the picture will have a big effect," says Ms. Van Woudenberg. But what happens in this leadership vacuum is difficult to predict, she adds. "This has the potential to open doors for moderates within the FDLR to lay down their weapons. It could also make the movement more hardened as they are increasingly cornered."
Murwanashyaka has long denied that FDLR forces have been involved in war crimes, and insisted that they were fighting for democracy in Rwanda.
Coming on the heels of mounting international pressure, the arrests in Germany represent a major shift in European policy towards the FDLR leadership. Previously the rebel group had carefully screened its leaders in Europe so that they could not be linked to the 1994 genocide.
"What I like about what happened is that this is the first time, to my knowledge, that the Europeans are arresting the FDLR on the basis of something that is currently happening in Congo, not actions of the genocide in 1994," says Guillaume Lacaille, a senior researcher on the DRC for International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "This opens up new legal grounds to go after the FDLR. In terms of impact, I would not like to be an FDLR combatant right now."
What will US and France do?
"Now, I would hope that France and the US will follow the example of Germany," adds Mr. Lacaille. Callixte Mbarushimana, the Secretary General of the FDLR, resides in France, and Jean-Marie Zianney Higiro, the president of a breakaway faction of the FDLR, resides in the US.
For many in the region, the news of the arrests is welcome, if long overdue.
"This is a good message to the people of Rwanda, the people of Eastern Congo and the region as a whole," says Tharcisse Karugaruma, Rwanda's Justice minister. "Their intention is to create fear in the region and eventually come back to Rwanda to finish the genocide that they started."
Mr. Karugaruma says that the arrests in Germany represented a new trend across Europe to deny sanctuary to FDLR rebel leaders living in the region.
Africa's "Great Lakes region will never know peace if the people leading and raising money for such groups are living freely in Europe and North America," Karugaruma says. "It's already high time that the world took decisive action on this issue."