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Home World News Washington Post World News EXPLANATION: Why Rwanda and Congo are sliding back to war?

EXPLANATION: Why Rwanda and Congo are sliding back to war?

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NAIROBI, Kenya – The threat of war with neighboring Congo is simmering beneath the tidy surface of Rwanda’s capital as the East African nation hosts the British Prime Minister and other world leaders for the Commonwealth summit next week.

Decades-old tensions between Rwanda, which has one of Africa’s most effective militaries, and Congo, one of the continent’s largest and most troubled countries, have risen along their common border a few hours’ drive from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. The alarm has reached the point where the Kenyan president is pushing for the immediate deployment of a newly established regional force in eastern Congo to keep the peace.

Each side has accused the other of raids. If Rwanda wants war, “it will have war,” a spokesman for the military governor of the Congolese province of North Kivu told thousands of protesters on Wednesday.

This is what is at stake.

Eastern Congo lives with the daily threat of dozens of armed groups vying for a piece of the region’s rich mineral wealth that the world mines for electric cars, laptops and cell phones. Earlier this year, one of the most infamous rebel groups, the M23, made a new rise.

The M23 launched an offensive against the Congolese army after it said the government had failed to fulfill its decades-long promises under a peace deal to integrate its fighters into the Congolese army. This week, the M23 captured an important trading town, Bunagana, sending thousands of people fleeing to neighboring Uganda and elsewhere.

The Congolese army then accused the Rwandan armed forces of “no less than an invasion”, and claimed that Rwanda supported the rebels in their capture of Bunagana.

The Congolese government has long accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, which Rwanda denies. In recent weeks, allegations have risen again. Many of the M23 fighters are ethnic Tutsis, like Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Rwanda, for its part, has accused the Congolese armed forces of injuring several civilians in cross-border shelling.


Relations between Rwanda and Congo have been fraught for decades. Rwanda claims that Congo has given shelter to the ethnic Hutus who committed the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which killed at least 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In the late 1990s, Rwanda sent its troops deep into Congo twice, along with Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila, to overthrow the country’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwandan troops in Congo have been widely accused of hunting and killing ethnic Hutus, even civilians.

According to human rights groups, millions of Congolese people have died during the years of conflict, and the consequences are still profound. Many women live with the scars and trauma of rape.

Eastern Congo continues to see divisions along ethnic lines at times. The region’s history of instability, riotous governance and the sheer distance – more than 1,600 miles – from the Congolese capital Kinshasa have dampened investment and left some basic infrastructure, such as roads mangled or non-existent.

Congo and Rwanda have long accused each other of supporting several rival armed groups in eastern Congo, a restless region and a major hub for humanitarian aid. A UN peacekeeping force of more than 17,000 personnel is based in Goma, but a top official made it clear this week that tensions with Rwanda and Uganda are not part of its role.

“That’s not why we’re here,” said Lt. Col. Frederic Harvey, head of the UN mission’s Congolese army liaison. “We are here to fulfill our mandate of protecting the civilian population and protecting national integrity.”

Goma, the region’s main city with more than 1 million inhabitants, was briefly taken by M23 fighters ten years ago. Many residents of Goma are now calling on the international community to intervene to help bring about peace and stability. “Kagame, enough is enough,” a sign read on Wednesday at a protest.

Pope Francis had planned to visit Goma next month as part of a trip to Congo and South Sudan, but canceled it last week on prescription due to his knee problems. The visit was intended to bring greater global attention to populations that have long struggled with conflict, even as this new one develops.

In the face of mounting tensions, the East African Community established a regional force earlier this year with six countries – Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Tanzania – to respond to problems. Now Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the bloc’s current chairman, wants the force to be immediately activated and deployed in eastern Congo, citing “open hostilities” there.

Kenyatta also calls for the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu and Ituri to be declared a “weapon-free zone” where anyone outside the mandated forces can be disarmed. Within hours, his appeal was received “warmly” by the president of Burundi, which borders both Rwanda and Congo.

Regional commanders of the affiliated forces will meet on Sunday in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, in the heart of East Africa’s economic center.

The regional force had been agreed upon by leaders of the countries now seemingly approaching war – Congo, the newest member of the EAC, and Rwanda, the largest African force contributing to UN peacekeeping missions worldwide.

But Rwanda was notably the only EAC member to skip a meeting of regional armed forces chiefs in Goma earlier this month. And there was no immediate response from Rwanda to Kenyatta’s call to action on Thursday.

Congo also did not immediately respond to the call to deploy regional troops, but government spokesman Patrick Muyaya welcomed the Kenyan president’s request to end hostilities and to end arms-free zones.

Associated Press writer Jean-Yves Kamale in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed.

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