Rwanda will not hesitate to respond to aggression from its vast neighbour to the west if Congolese troops continue to engage in “provocative acts” targeting its territory.
The warning followed the shelling of two Rwandan villages, allegedly from positions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Intelligence sources say it was a deliberate attack by Congolese forces, FARDC, with the help of peacekeepers from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Congo (Monusco), based in eastern DRC.
However, the UN force has denied being party to the fighting between FARDC and the M23 rebels, during which two bombs landed on Rwandan territory.
On Thursday, Rwanda’s Military and Defence Spokesperson, Brig-Gen Joseph Nzabamwita, while conducting a guided tour for military attaches from the US, Germany, France, Belgium and Tanzania in the two villages in Rubavu District that were hit by mortar bombs on Monday, categorically stated: “Rwanda will not tolerate any more attacks on its territory.”
Gen Nzabamwita added: “Rwanda is handling this issue diplomatically but we clearly say that if these deliberate acts of provocation continue the Rwandan Defence Forces, which are mandated to protect the country’s sovereignty, will have no option but to act.”
Rwanda is said to be getting increasingly worried that the Congolese army is directly working with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), remnants of the 1994 genocidal forces who are based in eastern DRC.
Observers say the involvement of FDLR in the ongoing fighting would directly suck in Rwanda if the rebels, who have been fighting the Kigali government since 1994, use the opportunity to launch attacks on the country.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, Rwanda addressed its concerns over the FDLR to the secretary-general even though both Monusco and the DRC government deny any knowledge of such a relationship.
But, according to Gen Nzabamwita, there was sufficient intelligence to prove Rwanda’s concerns and evidence that Monusco was abetting the FARDC-FDLR friendship.
Sources say recent events following the resumption of fighting have thrown Monusco into panic after the UN force’s relationship with FARDC came into question, with reports of torture and human rights abuses by the Congolese army also emerging.
Shocking details of torture on suspected M23 rebels and sympathisers and desecration of rebels’ bodies drew condemnation, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressing his concern over the growing cases of human rights abuses by FARDC.
A Rwandan intelligence source claimed that a call from Mr Ban saw Monusco quickly attempt to sever ties with the government forces, even as photographs of their officers in consultation with their Congolese army counterparts surfaced.
“Monusco is panicking. After gratuitously denying involvement in the shooting incident on Rwandan soil, its commanders are now desperately trying to cover up evidence of the shelling, at the same time distancing themselves from an army that is committing crimes against humanity,” the source said.
Mr Ban urged President Joseph Kabila’s government to investigate and punish the perpetrators of the heinous acts as UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said “those responsible for such crimes must know that they will be prosecuted.”
The situation is becoming complex ahead of the entry into the scene of UN Intervention Brigade this month. It is unclear how the brigade, whose mandate is to rout negative forces from the central African country, will operate alongside Monusco.
Rwanda, which is a signatory to the UNSG Addis Ababa Peace Framework for DRC which established the intervention force, has voiced its concerns over the brigade’s alleged connections to FDRL.
Kigali is seen as likely to build on this claim to oppose the operations of the brigade, which comprises Tanzanian, Malawian and South African troops.
Grudge with Tanzania
Observers also say Rwanda could use the opportunity to grind an axe with with Tanzania if accusations of the brigade abetting FDLR persist.
The two neighbours are experiencing uneasy relations after President Jakaya Kikwete’s proposal that Kigali talks to the FDLR, which drew massive condemnation.
President Paul Kagame recently warned that he was waiting for the “right opportunity” to crush Rwanda’s enemies, including those who show “sympathy for genocidaires.”
Some analysts however say the volatile situation in DRC could prove to be the right opportunity for the two countries to iron out their differences.
The ongoing fighting is reported to have weakened M23, with the Congolese government claiming to have killed at least 130 fighters. The rebels have however denied the claim.
A source told The EastAfrican that the situation could prompt Kigali to provide real support and firepower to the rebels if it has to crush its “enemies”.
“This could actually prove to be the right opportunity for Rwanda to arm M23 if it doesn’t have to enter Congo,” a regional scholar observed. “Crushing M23 will give an edge to Rwanda’s enemies, including FDLR.
“The only thing at the moment that can keep Rwanda out of the current situation is the Intervention Brigade targeting FDLR as well rather than focussing on M23. It is highly unlikely that the UN brigade will engage FDLR.”
Rwanda has in the past denied supporting the M23 movement following several UN reports that accused Kigali and Kampala of abetting the fighting in Eastern DRC.
The renewed clashes put a spotlight on ongoing but inconclusive peace talks in Kampala between the two sides, which could offer a more enduring solution to disagreements between the M23 and the Congolese government.
But, the talks have dragged on since December last year without any meaningful results.
Military and political sources within the region say the snail’s pace that has characterised the talks since they opened could amplify growing tensions between the two sides and lead to full scale battles.
Suck in countries
These, they say, could suck in countries from the east and southern Africa in circumstances reminiscent of the so-called “second Congo war” that raged between 1997 and 2003 and attracted up to 13 African countries.
Although the chief facilitator, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, Uganda’s Minister of Defence, cobbled together a harmonised draft agreement from each side’s final presentations, both the government and the rebels remain reluctant to take a stand on it.
The stalemate is mainly due to Kinshasa’s insistence that the rebels should disband ahead of the deployment of the brigade, the first offensive force the UN has ever established.
The rebels insist that Kinshasa must sign a ceasefire agreement, agree to broad terms of integration as well as a measured process of disarmament that should take no less than five years.
Sources privy to the war in Congo say the latest clashes, which broke out on Sunday, July 14, and continued steadily until Tuesday, July 16, were largely provocative and followed in the pattern of earlier ones in May which were temporarily halted by the joint visit to Goma by Mr Ban and the World Bank president, Dr Jim Yong Kim.
Urgency of UN brigade
It is not clear which side attacked the other first as both the government and the rebels blamed each other for opening hostilities. Equally, the full impact of these hostilities — in terms of the dead, injured and displaced — is yet to be fully assessed.
What is clear though is that they raised the urgency of the brigade, which Dr Jim and Mr Ban came to rally support for during their whistle-stop tour of the Great Lakes region.
But commencement of the brigade’s operations has been delayed in part by the absence of the required military arsenal and manpower.