Tense stand-off in eastern Congo | Africa | DW | 13.07.2012
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Tense stand-off in eastern Congo

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, UN forces have been goaded into action by rebel activities masterminded by a warlord on the wanted list of the ICC in the Hague.

Tensions are running high in Eastern Congo: For weeks, rebels of the M23 movement have been attacking villages in the area. Their target is to capture the provincial capital of Goma. So far, the Congolese army has been unable to put up much resistance.

But the UN does not want to give in without a fight: Tanks belonging to the UN peacekeeping mission took up strategic positions in the north of Goma. On Thursday, UN and DRC government troops already attacked the M23 rebels with five helicopter gunships. The attacks followed a series of key gains by the rebels.

The rebel organisation M23, headed by warlord and ex-general Bosco Ntaganda, was formed in April after DRC President Joseph Kabila called for Ntaganda to be extradited to The Hague. He is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, which issued a fresh warrant for Ntaganda's arrest on Friday, July 13.

Within a short space of time, armed Tutsi soldiers in the DRC's armed forces had turned deserter and gone over to Ntaganda, who is himself a Tutsi. They accused the government of not abiding by a 2009 peace deal.

The deal signed on March 23 (hence the rebel group's name M 23) had promised an amnesty for Ntaganda and his followers. On Friday of last week, the rebels captured Bunagana, a town near to the border with Uganda. Further towns and villages fell at the weekend, only to be abandoned by the rebels shortly thereafter.

Fear and unrest in Goma

Kambale Mangolopa is a pastor in Goma. "People are afraid," he told DW. Tensions were running high on Monday when local people took to the streets to protest against Rwandan influence in Goma.

Taxi drivers had apparently hauled Rwandans off to the border and told them to leave the country. An interethnic council then called for calm. The M23 rebels were mounting an attack on the state, the DRC, not on individual ethnic groups, the council proclaimed.

"Fortunately," said Mangolopa, "this is holiday time." This means that the numerous Rwandan students who are studying in Goma are back home in Rwanda. "Otherwise, I don't know what would have happened," he confesses. Responding to the unrest, civil society representatives called on local shops and business to remain closed for a day.

The M23 movement is a symptom of a conflict between the DRC and Rwanda that has been simmering for years. Parts of the ethnic Rwandan, Kinyarwanda-speaking population in eastern Congo have been living in the country for generations. But since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the subsequent flight of a number of Hutu perpetrators to eastern Congo, the presence of this largely peaceful Rwandan group has acquired political overtones.

Rwandan government forces have several launched campaigns against the Hutu-led FDLR, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, on Congolese territory, violating DRC sovereignty.

A UN peacekeeper stands guard in Bunagana, DRC, close to the border with Uganda

A UN peacekeeper stands guard in Bunagana, DRC, close to the border with Uganda

A panel of UN experts published a report in June accusing the Rwandan government of providing backing for the new rebel group in the DRC, lowering the temperatures in bilateral relations even further. UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon is seeking dialogue with DRC President Joseph Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame. "Everything possible must be done to stop the rebels' advance and halt the fighting," Ban said.

Depriving M23 of customs revenue

Julien Paluku, governor of the province of Nord-Kivu, believes cross-border trade has a role to play resolving this dispute. Traders, he says, should avoid the border control points in Bunagana. There could be fines if people didn't comply, he added.

Paluku wants to ensure that M23 does not profit from customs duties collected in Bunagana. This is a blow for trade with neighbor Uganda, which lies on the other side of the border. Traders will be forced to take a longer route via Rwanda, which means higher costs.

A UN peacekeeper stands guard in Bunagana, DRC, close to the border with Uganda

A UN peacekeeper stands guard in Bunagana, DRC, close to the border with Uganda

Even though they were not able to settle their differences, the DRC and Rwanda have succeeded in arriving at common position on the rebel offensive. A group of foreign and defence ministers from 11 nations near the Great Lakes region, including Rwanda and the DRC, said on Thursday there was a need to "put an end to the crisis in the DRC."

The ministers pledged to work with the African Union and UN for the "immediate establishment of a neutral international force to eradicate M23, the FDLR and all other negative forces in eastern DRC and patrol and secure the border zones."

Meanwhile only a semblance of normality has returned to Goma. "Some M23 rebels are armed," one resident told DW, "but others are not and they are out there in the population. We've no way of knowing who belongs to M23 and who doesn't. We are in a difficult position," he said.

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