NAIROBI, Kenya ( Associated Press) – The risk of war with neighboring Congo is rising beneath the clear surface of Rwanda’s capital as the East African nation hosts the British prime minister and other world leaders for a Commonwealth summit next week.,
Decades-old tensions between Rwanda, which has Africa’s most influential military, and the Congo, one of the continent’s largest and most troubled countries, have escalated over their shared border just hours from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Alarm has reached a point where Kenya’s president is urging the immediate deployment of a newly created regional force in eastern Congo to keep the peace.
Both sides have accused each other of infiltration. If Rwanda wants war, “there will be war,” a spokesman for the military governor of Congo’s North Kivu province told thousands of protesters on Wednesday.
What is at stake here.
What just happened?
Eastern Congo lives with daily threats from dozens of armed groups who struggle for a piece of the region’s rich mineral wealth that the world is mining for electric cars, laptops and mobile phones. Earlier this year, one of the most notorious rebel groups, the M23, rose again.
The M23 launched an offensive against the Congolese military, saying the government had failed to fulfill its decades-old promises made under a peace deal to integrate its fighters into the Congolese army. This week the M23 seized a major trading city, Bunagana, forcing thousands to flee to neighboring Uganda and elsewhere.
At the time, the Congolese army accused the Rwandan army of “no less than an invasion”, alleging that Rwanda supported the rebels in the capture of Bungana.
The Congolese government has long accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, which Rwanda denies. The allegations have escalated again in recent weeks. Many of the M23 fighters are ethnic Tutsi, similar to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Rwanda, for its part, has accused the Congolese military of injuring several civilians in cross-border shelling.
What is the history of stress?
Relations between Rwanda and Congo have deteriorated for decades. Rwanda alleges that the Congo has harbored ethnic Hutus who perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which killed at least 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutus. In the late 1990s, Rwanda twice sent its forces to the Congo, joining forces with Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila to depose the country’s longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwandan forces in the Congo were widely accused of hunting and killing ethnic Hutu, even civilians.
According to rights groups, millions of Congolese people died during the years of the conflict, and its effects are still deep today. Many women live with the scars and trauma of rape.
Ethnic divisions are sometimes seen in eastern Congo. The region’s history of instability, loose governance and its vast distance from the Congolese capital Kinshasa – a distance of more than 1,600 miles – has reduced investment and left some infrastructure such as roads poor or non-existent.
Congo and Rwanda have long accused each other of supporting various rival armed groups in eastern Congo, a restless region and a major center of humanitarian aid. A UN peacekeeping force of more than 17,000 personnel is based in Goma, but a top official clarified this week that tensions with Rwanda and Uganda were not part of its role.
“That’s not why they were here,” said Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Harvey, the head of the United Nations mission with the Congolese Army. “We are here to fulfill our mandate, which includes protecting the civilian population and maintaining national integrity.”
Goma, the region’s main city of more than a million people, was briefly seized by M23 fighters a decade ago. Many Goma residents now call on the international community to intervene to help establish peace and stability. “Kagame, enough is enough,” read a sign at a protest on Wednesday.
Pope Francis had planned to visit Goma next month as part of a visit to the Congo and South Sudan, but canceled it last week, citing a doctor’s order due to knee problems. The visit was to draw further global attention to a population long wrestling with the conflict, even as it was newly developed.
Faced with rising tensions, the East African Community of six countries – Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Tanzania – created a regional force earlier this year aimed at responding to trouble. Now Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the current chairman of the bloc, wants the force to be activated immediately and deployed in eastern Congo, noting “open hostilities” there.
Kenyatta also called for the eastern Congolese provinces of North and South Kivu and Ituri to be declared “weapons-free zones” where anyone outside the mandated forces can be disarmed. Within hours, his call was “warmly” welcomed by the president of Burundi, which borders both Rwanda and the Congo.
Regional commanders of member defense forces will meet on Sunday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, which is at the heart of East Africa’s economic hub.
The regional force was agreed upon by the leaders of countries that are now closing in on the war – Congo, the EAC’s newest member, and Rwanda, the largest African military contributor to UN peacekeeping missions around the world.
But Rwanda was the only EAC member to skip the regional armed forces chiefs meeting in Goma earlier this month. And there was no immediate response from Rwanda on Thursday on Kenyatta’s call to action.
Congo also did not comment directly on calls to deploy a regional force, but government spokesman Patrick Muayya welcomed the Kenyan president’s request for an end to hostilities and arms-free zones.
Associated Press writer Jean-Yves Kamale in Kinshasa, Congo contributed.