Fighters from former Congolese M23 rebels are said to have crossed into Rwanda, hours after reports of clashes between the DRC army and the defunct group emerged.
In a brief statement issued on Sunday, Rwanda’s Ministry of Defence said that about 30 unarmed militants entered the country from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
“In the morning of 29 January 2017, a group of unarmed people claiming to be M23 combatants crossed into Rwanda through Rwanda-DRC common border, in Bugeshi Sector, Rubavu District. By 1700h, 30 individuals had been registered,” Lt Col Rene Ngendahimana, the military spokesman said in the statement.
“According to information received from the combatants by Rwanda Defence Force, they claim that they are fleeing from combat action by DRC Armed Forces (FARDC),” the statement adds.
Lt Col Ngendahimana said the fighters who had been wounded received treatment from the Red Cross.
Earlier, two military helicopters were reported to have crashed in eastern Congo in an operation by the government forces targeting the M23 rebels who are said to be regrouping.
Congolese Information minister Lambert Mende told Reuters that it was not clear what brought down the helicopters on Friday in North Kivu province near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda.
UN-sponsored Radio Okapi quoting military sources reported that the helicopters crashed as they pursued insurgents belonging to the rebel group who are reportedly regrouping, threatening to destabilise the already fragile region.
Radio Okapi also reported that five crew members - three Russians and two Congolese officers - were rescued and brought to hospital. But Mr Mende said he could not confirm that information.
Earlier this month, Kinshasa raised alarm that the M23 rebels could be reorganising. Uganda later confirmed that about 40 members of the group had escaped from a camp there were being interned, while more than 100 were arrested as they tried to cross into the DRC.
Conflicting reports indicate that a bigger number could have escaped from the Bihanga Army Barracks. Only 270 of the 1,400 former rebels who were at Bihanga remain while others either escaped or were repatriated willingly.
In August last year, President Yoweri Museveni in a meeting with his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila said that about 730 former rebels were still at Bihanga.
The rebels arrived in Uganda in 2013 after they were defeated by the United Nations joint intervention force. Over 600 fled to Rwanda after the rebel group, which was created by mutineering soldiers in 2012, split into two.
In Rwanda, less than 200 ex-rebels remain interned in a camp in the country’s eastern province district of Ngoma, while more than a dozen have been repatriated. More than 400 joined their families in DRC quietly while others declared themselves refugees.
A source among the rebels confirmed that the former rebels have been regrouping secretly, and are likely to re-emerge under a different name.
M23 emerged in 2012 led by mutineering soldiers who wreaked havoc on eastern DRC until UN forces defeated them in 2013.
Rwanda and Uganda were accused of backing the rebels but both governments denied the accusations.