As the deadline for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) to disarm or face military action approaches, questions remain over whether the rebels, who are accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide, will be finally rooted out from the jungles of eastern DR Congo.
The rebels, who in the past two weeks have pledged to surrender to the United Nations and government forces ahead of the deadline, could face military action, with only just over 600 having surrendered ahead of the January 2 deadline.
The rebels are estimated to number between 1,500 and 2,000; Rwanda says there could be 3,000 or more.
Last week, President Paul Kagame met his Angolan counterpart and chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Eduardo Dos Santos to discuss “matters of regional concern.” The FDLR issue dominated the meeting.
“During their meeting, held at the Presidential Palace, the two heads of state discussed regional security and committed to stepping up bilateral co-operation in various sectors, including investment,” said a statement released by the President’s Office.
Political observers say Kigali is drawing Luanda to its side as pressure gathers on regional countries and the UN to end the FDLR menace once and for all. Rwanda and Angola were previously rivals in the Congo conflict but the two countries have since strengthened bilateral ties, with each country promising to open a diplomatic mission.
But the FDLR, which Rwanda says continues to harbour the genocide ideology, remains very much a threat, with the latest developments suggesting that the rebel group could still have collaborators inside Rwanda, which could complicate the process of eliminating them.
During a major crackdown on FDLR collaborators between May and July 2014, several local leaders were arrested on suspicion of abetting the rebel group.
Recently, one of the 15 suspects charged with working with FDLR to cause insecurity in Northern Province said their activities were bankrolled by the Governor of the province Aime Bosenibamwe. Mr Bosenibamwe has dismissed the allegations as “wild and baseless.”
But this week, Prosecutor General Richard Muhumuza when asked whether Mr Bosenibamwe would be arrested simply said, “No one is above the law.”
The Northern and Western Provinces were famous in the period between 1994 and 1998 for harbouring “infiltrators” known as Abacyengenzi, remnants of the former government and Hutu militias.
Some residents of Northern Province offered safe haven to them, which required military operations to wipe them out in 1998. Sources within the military said two provinces remain “sensitive operation areas.”
Both the DRC government and Monusco say that the deadline for FDLR to disarm voluntarily and repatriate will not be extended and military strikes will follow.
“Upon the expiry of the ultimatum, there will be no more time to talk. Our armed forces and partners will launch a military offensive to forcibly disarm the FDLR,” DRC government spokesman Lambert Mende told IRIN news agency last week.
As military action looms, humanitarian activists warn that strikes should be the last option as they would come with loss of civilian lives.
“Any military operation risks creating a humanitarian fallout. In eastern Congo, one of our biggest concerns is increased displacement in areas that are already overwhelmed by the needs of displaced people,” Frances Charles, advocacy manager with World Vision DRC, told IRIN.
He said the planned offensive comes with a high level of risk, particularly to civilians. “Every effort must be made to reduce and monitor human-rights violations,” Mr Charles said.
Mr Mende said the government has already warned people, through radio announcements, to move away from areas with FDLR elements.