KABUANGA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo sought on Monday to prevent the killing of a Congolese soldier in a border clash from causing an escalation of already tense relations, officials said.
“Relations are the same with Rwanda. We’re in contact with them. It was just an isolated incident,” Congolese army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli said during a visit to the scene of the shooting in eastern Congo, at a spot where the border runs through a potato patch.
“You can see there’s no natural frontier, so it’s easy for someone to make a mistake and find himself in another territory,” he said, waving towards a group of potato farmers watching from just metres (yards) away in Rwanda.
The Congolese army at the weekend said one of its members had been killed on Saturday during an incident involving a Congolese soldier and a Rwandan soldier.
Rwanda said soldiers from Congo’s armed forces had crossed the border on a reconnaissance mission and one was killed in a clash with Rwandan troops while one escaped.
On Monday, apart from a handful of military men watching silently from a nearby hilltop, there was little to indicate that the tense border runs through the water-logged field where the Congolese soldier was killed.
Relations between the two Great Lakes neighbours, never warm, have chilled considerably since United Nations investigators accused Rwanda earlier this year of backing eastern Congo’s M23 rebels, a charge Kigali strongly denies.
Yet for all the cross words exchanged after their armies engaged in the rare firefight on Saturday, both sides were quick to head off a possible escalation - a subtle nod to just how much worse things could get.
In a statement over the weekend Rwanda said it would not respond militarily and would instead seek to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels.
Violence between Congo and Rwandan has been a nearly constant worry in the region for almost two decades, and open conflict in the past has led to catastrophic fallout.
In 1996, Kigali invaded its much larger neighbour in pursuit of Rwandan Hutu extremists responsible for a 1994 genocide that killed some 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
A second invasion a year later, sucked in a half dozen other African armies and sparked a conflict and lingering humanitarian crisis that continues today and has killed an estimated 5.4 million people.
Nearly a decade after the end to that war, more than a million and a half villagers have again fled violence in the two Congolese provinces bordering Rwanda, many since the start of the Tutsi-dominated M23 rebellion.
However, analysts say Rwanda’s involvement in eastern Congo is largely driven by economic interests - from smuggled minerals to fertile grazing lands for Rwandan cattle - and it has little interest in an open war with Congo.
For Congo’s badly equipped and poorly disciplined army, a conflict with the Rwandan military - one of Africa’s best - is something to be avoided at all costs.
“This shouldn’t be dramatised and politicised by Kigali,” Congolese human rights lawyer Jean-Paul Lumbulumbu said of the border shoot-out.
“But incidents like this could be a catalyst to serious violence. That’s why the Congolese government has got to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”