* U.S. decision seen as significant shift
* Washington says will assess if more action needed
* Rwanda says to debunk allegations “line by line” next week (Adds Rwandan government and M23 reaction)
By Joe Bavier and David Lewis
ABIDJAN/DAKAR, July 21 (Reuters) - The United States said on Saturday it would cut military aid to Rwanda for this year because of evidence by U.N. experts that Kigali was supporting rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The U.S. decision was widely seen as a significant shift in policy because Washington has stood by Rwanda in the past despite the tiny nation’s long history of involvement in wars in vast neighbouring Congo.
In response, Rwanda said that next week it would debunk “line by line” the U.N. experts’ report, which said Kigali was backing eastern Congolese rebels, including the M23 group that has seized parts of North Kivu province where 260,000 have been displaced by clashes since April.
“The United States government is deeply concerned about the evidence that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups, including M23,” Hilary Fuller Renner, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
“We will not obligate $200,000 in Fiscal Year 2012 Foreign Military Financing funds that were intended to support a Rwandan academy for non-commissioned officers. These funds will be reallocated for programming in another country,” she said.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told Reuters: “Rwanda is (meeting) with the (U.N.’s Group of Experts) next week to go through each allegation in the interim report and debunk them line by line.
“We will present this to partners, including (the) U.S., while focusing on joint verification process (with Congo) and new border patrol plan,” she said, referring to steps being taken to defuse tensions.
Rwanda sent its army into Congo, then called Zaire, in the mid 1990s, ostensibly to hunt down Rwandan Hutu rebels who fled there after the 1994 genocide.
A decade of conflict followed in which Rwandan forces helped Congolese rebels topple dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwanda then fell out with these rebels, sparking a war that sucked in other neighbouring armies. The war officially ended in 2003.
Rwanda’s leadership has repeatedly said it was being made a scapegoat for Congo’s internal problems.
Renner said Washington was assessing whether further steps should be taken over Rwanda but that it would continue to help Kigali in its peacekeeping missions. Rwanda has a major peacekeeping presence in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Although the amount of U.S. funding being withheld from Rwanda is small, analysts said the decision clearly signalled Washington’s displeasure.
“The U.S. government has been a long-standing ally of the Rwandan government. This step, even if symbolic, is emblematic of a shift in perception - if not necessarily in aid - in Washington,” said independent Congo expert Jason Stearns.
The current rebellion in Congo comes after three years of generally improved relations between Kinshasa and Kigali since the latter helped end a 2004-9 eastern Congolese uprising, which Rwanda was also accused of backing.
The leaders of Congo and Rwanda agreed to allow a neutral force to be deployed in Congo to defeat each other’s rebels, but the plan’s details have not been announced yet.
Writing by David Lewis; Additional reporting by James Akena in Bunagana; Editing by Ralph Gowling