Government forces backed by UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have begun attacking Rwandan Hutu rebels based in the eastern border region, UN and Congolese officials say.
Hutu rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) have been involved in nearly two decades of regional conflict, which spilled into eastern Congo after neighbouring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
The United Nations force, known as MONUSCO, has a robust mandate to eradicate Congo’s armed groups. UN troops and government forces won a rare victory last year against M23, a Congolese Tutsi rebel force that had been the FDLR’s principal enemy.
Colonel Felix Basse, military spokesman for the UN's Congo mission, said UN troops had deployed in Virunga National Park in North Kivu province and were backing a Congolese offensive against the FDLR.
“Since Sunday, we have deployed our men and we have had contact with FDLR in that zone,” Basse told a news conference on Wednesday in North Kivu’s provincial capital, Goma. He said two rebels had been killed in the fighting so far.
Basse said the 3,000-strong UN intervention brigade – made up of troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi – was taking part in the joint offensive.
“These operations will continue. We have a mandate to protect the population and restore the authority of the state,” he said.
The FDLR is made up, in part, of former Rwandan soldiers and Hutu militiamen who fled to Congo after taking part in the killing of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus 20 years ago.
Rights groups accuse them of taking part in civilian killings and mass rapes.
FDLR refuse to disarm
While their numbers have dwindled to a few thousand militants in recent years, previous attempts to disarm the rebels have failed. They are considered one of the principal obstacles to establishing a durable peace in the mineral-rich region.
“So far the FDLR have refused to disarm, which is why we have attacked," Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said Wednesday. "We will not stop until they lay down their arms.”
“We alone, or with the support of our partners in MONUSCO, must put an end to this threat against our populations,” he said.
Rwanda invaded Congo twice in the late 1990s to try to wipe out Hutu fighters. The offensives helped ignite two regional wars and countless smaller conflicts that killed millions of people.
Rwanda has since been accused of backing armed groups in eastern Congo, most recently by a panel of UN experts who say Rwanda armed and organised M23.
Rwanda denies the accusation and says Congo’s army is collaborating with the FDLR.
At the height of its 20-month-long rebellion, M23 took control of Goma – eastern Congo’s largest city – in the most serious threat to President Joseph Kabila’s regime to date.
M23 threatened last August to retake Goma if Kinshasa reneged on its pledge to start direct talks.
A UN report in January said there were credible reports that the M23 continues to recruit fighters in Rwanda.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-03-13