More than 1,500 Rwandan troops entered eastern Congo joining Congolese forces in an effort to oust Hutu rebels who participated in Rwanda\’s genocide and have been at the heart of the region\’s conflict, officials said.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said the Rwandan forces arrived Tuesday morning and that the joint military operations would last 10 to 15 days.
“We have officially asked the Rwandan army to participate in the disarmament operations of the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) which have begun,” Mende said.
A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said there was concern that Hutu militiamen might retaliate against civilians.
Rare joint operation
In a rare move, Congo and Rwanda have agreed to step up efforts against the Rwandan Hutu militants who have long destabilised the region. Still, neither country has been able to eradicate the Hutu rebels since they fled to Congo in 1994.
The Hutu fighters, who helped carry out the genocide in which more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, have remained in Congo untouched, heavily armed, and in control of lucrative mines in remote hills and forests.
The militia has terrorised civilians, given Tutsi rebels a reason to fight and also are the reason why Rwanda invaded Congo previously in 1996 and 1998.
The UN mission in Congo said it was not associated with the operations but confirmed that the Rwandan forces had entered Congolese territory. UN peacekeeping spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich said between 1,500 and 2,000 Rwandan soldiers had crossed the border.
Louise Mushikiwabo, the Rwandan minister of information, said all forces were under the command of the Congolese national army.
“There is new momentum and the government of Rwanda is pleased the fundamental obstacle to stability for the last 15 years … is finally being tackled,” Mushikiwabo said.
Ongoing Hutu attacks
The Rwandan Hutus fled to Congo in 1994 and some lived in overflowing refugee camps there. By 1996, their leaders launched an insurgency and began carrying out cross-border attacks into Rwanda, killing more Tutsis.
Fed up, Rwanda attacked the camps and drove on to Congo\’s capital, Kinshasa, installing late Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila as president in 1997.
Eager to prove his independence, Kabila in 1998 expelled the Rwandan Tutsis who brought him to power. Three days later, Rwanda organised another Congolese rebellion, and along with Uganda, seized eastern Congo in a war that drew in half a dozen African nations and lasted until 2002.
Since then, Congo has formed a unity government that gave top posts to rebels. Kabila\’s son Joseph won historic elections in 2006.