KIBATI, Congo (Reuters) - Rwandan troops crossed into eastern Congo on Tuesday in a joint military operation by the Great Lakes neighbours to disarm Rwandan Hutu rebels seen as a root cause of more than a decade of conflict.
Both governments presented the operation as a move to finally pacify the east of Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting flared again late last year during an advance by Tutsi insurgents who are sworn enemies of the Rwandan Hutu rebels.
Analysts said allowing the Rwandan forces in was a risky strategy for Congolese President Joseph Kabila, whose government army has been been often accused by critics of using the FDLR to fight armed opponents and keep Tutsi-led Rwanda at bay.
The presence of the Rwandan Hutu FDLR fighters, who finance themselves by exploiting illegal mines in the mineral-rich east, triggered two previous Rwandan invasions of Congo that led to a wider 1998-2003 conflict. It also helped cause a 2004 rebellion by the Congo Tutsi rebels who went on the offensive in October.
Diplomats and U.N. peacekeepers said that up to 2,000 Rwandan troops crossed the border into eastern Congo on Tuesday under a December joint accord to act against the mostly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
The FDLR’s strength is estimated at around 6,000 fighters, spread across North and South Kivu.
“The operations are beginning. We have invited Rwandan officers with their security contingents for their safety. They are observers,” Congo’s information minister Lambert Mende said.
He added the operations to disarm FDLR fighters were planned to last 10 to 15 days and be restricted to North and South Kivu.
The size of the Rwandan deployment appeared to be more than a simple mission by “observers”.
A Reuters reporter saw hundreds of Rwandan troops, wearing Rwandan flag patches on their uniforms and carrying mortars, rocket launchers and AK-47s, moving into Congo in the Kibati area north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
Rwandan military spokesman Major Jill Rutaremara told Reuters in Kigali the details of the operation were “secret”.
Independent Congo analyst Jason Stearns said the joint operation marked a turning point in Kinshasa’s attitude towards the conflict in the east. “It appears Kabila’s government has decided to turn on what has been an ally, the FDLR,” he said.
Rwanda’s Information Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, said the Rwandan forces would operate under Congolese command.
“This is a result of recent intense and sincere efforts — diplomatic, military and other ... to bring peace and stability to the region.” he told Reuters by text message.
U.N. peacekeepers also confirmed the Rwandan deployment.
“This morning between 1,500 and 2,000 RDF (Rwanda Defence Forces) crossed the border in the Munigi-Kibati zone,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, military spokesman for the U.N. force, MONUC, said. MONUC, the biggest U.N. peace force, said it had not been involved in planning the operation.
Congolese army forces were on the move with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and mobile rocket launchers, Dietrich said.
Experts said the FDLR guerrillas ensconced in the hills and forests of the Kivus could be a tough nut to crack militarily.
“These kinds of counter-insurgency operations are very difficult and always carry with them the risk of serious harm to the civilian population,” Stearns said.
The latest entry of Rwandan troops into Congo, at the same time as a Ugandan-led offensive against Ugandan LRA rebels further north in Orientale, appeared to be an acknowledgement by Kabila that he had failed to pacify the volatile east. He had promised to do this after winning 2006 elections.
“Look where we are, two years after elections, the Rwandan army back in Congo and the Ugandans are back in Congo ... and the Congolese get screwed again,” one veteran foreign Congo analyst, who asked not be named, said.
The analyst recalled Congo’s 1998-2003 war, when Rwanda and Uganda backed rival rebel groups.
The presence in eastern Congo of Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels, many of whom participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, has been at the heart of more than a decade of bloodshed.
The 1998-2003 war sucked in the armies of half a dozen nearby countries, and triggered a conflict-driven humanitarian catastrophe that killed an estimated 5.4 million people.
Rwanda and Congo have agreed on several past occasions to cooperate to tackle the Hutu rebels, but have failed to carry this out amid accusations that ill-disciplined Congolese government forces have sided with the FDLR Hutu fighters.